The highly competitive Washington State Senate contest for the 41st District seat between incumbent Republican Steve Litzow and Democratic challenger Lisa Wellman is a focal point as the November general election approaches. The outcome could help decide how much or how little in new taxes are used to fund a court-ordered shift to the state of some local school responsibility for funding K-12 basic education.
The contest is also drawing attention because Washington’s charter schools are again under legal attack – for the second time since last year – by the state teachers labor union, the Washington Education Association (WEA).
Litzow was lead sponsor of a 2016 bill that is now law, which developed a new funding source for charters after the State Supreme Court took the side of the WEA.
However, now a new lawsuit attacking charter funding, again including the WEA, has been filed and the high court may again propel it forward to lawmakers.
If so, the legislature would find itself mired in a wrenching re-do of the successful 2016 charters rescue effort come next January, but with a lot more on its plate – namely, a new two-year budget already fraught with huge pressures and workloads.
District Is Distinct
Affluent, educated, socially progressive, and fiscally conservative, the 41st encompasses Mercer Island, parts of Bellevue, and other Eastside communities. In the primary, Wellman won 456 more votes than Litzow out of 30,374 cast, or 48.7 percent to his 47.2 percent. Another 3.9 percent went to Libertarian Bryan Simonson, and .13 percent to write-ins.
Litzow is chair of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee. In an interview he emphasized his leadership role in winning legislative approval of $4.5 billion more K-12 funding in the last two state budget cycles without raising taxes.
He also co-sponsored SB 6195, signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee in late February. It commits the legislature to “develop sources of revenue to support the state’s statutory program of basic education,” and ease the current burden on local school districts. A bipartisan legislative task force created under SB 6195 is formulating a plan to be finalized by the end of the 2017 session.
The effort comes in response to an approaching 2018 deadline for lawmakers to comply with a roughly $3 billion basic ed funding onus on the state imposed by the Washington Supreme Court in its 2012 McCleary ruling.
That nowhere near $3 billion of actual new revenue, or perhaps any new revenue, is required, is an emphatic point made by various Capitol stakeholders.
Differing Approaches On K-12 Funding Changes
Litzow stressed that part of the solution is a shift of some money raised from local school taxes over to the state so it can meet its paramount responsibility under the state constitution to fund education, and further its “levy equalization” between districts in Eastern and Western Washington and suburban and rural areas. He added that a related statewide voter referendum in November 2017 is certain.
Teachers unions will also have to give, Litzow said, by allowing lessening reliance on seniority as a salary determinant in favor of performance-based measures.
On K-12 funding, Wellman envisions a “grand bargain” which leaves the 41st District with the “same high level of school quality” but no new local property taxes, and includes new revenue at the state level.
On new revenue for McCleary, Wellman said that “certainly, capital gains” taxes at the state level are feasible as a source of new revenue to boost K-12.
Wellman added she would be very wary of sacrificing local control of teacher salaries, and would be concerned how performance determinants of salary are defined.
Contrasting Views On Capital Gains Tax
Litzow said a state capital gains tax is a “gateway drug” that would leave the door open for an attempt to impose a state income tax in 2018 if a pro-tax majority gains control of the Senate.
Wellman replied, “I’m not talking about an income tax, that’s not on the table, initially.”
Charter schools are another high-profile education issue in the contest. Litzow was lead sponsor of SB 6194, which secured a new source of state funding for charters. This followed a supportive State Supreme Court ruling on the WEA lawsuit, delivered just as the 2015-2016 school year began last September.
Charter Schools In The Spotlight
The Litzow charters bill cleared the Senate on a largely party-line vote in January. In a dramatic late-night debate in early March of this year, the House companion bill won passage with 10 Democrats crossing over party lines to support charters. The measure became law in April without the signature of Governor Jay Inslee.
Earlier this month, another court challenge attacking charter schools was filed by plaintiffs including the WEA. Litzow said he continues to strongly support charter schools because they are an “important option to ensure our state’s K-12 students can get a really excellent education.” The ongoing attack on Washington charters is part of a broader national campaign.
Wellman is endorsed by WEA but says she is not opposed to charter schools.
Wellman added the current charters in Washington will provide a “good test to see where they are and what they can do,” and whether they can demonstrate “appropriate accountability and deliver results.”
Litzow said if the new legal challenge to Washington charters were to be upheld by the state high court, he would again intervene legislatively. “I led the effort last time, partnering with Democrats, and would do the exact same thing again,” he said.
Wellman declined to answer whether she would support new legislation similar to the 2016 charters rescue bill if it had to be introduced; or whether she would have supported the 2016 measure had she been in the legislature then.
The contest has attracted interest in the education community.
Tom Franta is CEO of the Washington State Charter School Association. He also serves on the board of and operates a wholly separate political action committee, Washington Charters Action PAC. He says, “Steve Litzow has absolutely been a champion for charter schools and for education reforms important to the state as a whole…Our focus is on protecting our champions.”
The committee as of August 31 had raised $412,900 and spent $175,100. Franta declined to specify what level of support the committee would provide to Litzow. Also likely to line up behind Litzow is another pro-charters political committee, the Stand For Children Washington PAC. It has raised $840,300 and spent almost $247,000.
Wellman in the primary received $2,000 from the WEA political action committee, which is likely to support her in the general election contest as well. The WEA committee has raised $2.7 million and spent $1.1 million.