Early Battle Lines Drawn On School Funding

Early Battle Lines Drawn On School Funding
Washington state lawmakers are already wrestling with how to even out the sometimes stark fiscal differences between local districts, and prompt better academic outcomes. This comes as they work to shift more of the K-12 funding burden to the state. Seen here: Students at Miller Junior High School in the Aberdeen School District. (Photo: Aberdeen School District).

Comments by State Sen. John Braun (R-20) at a recent Education Funding Task Force meeting suggest a possible push for evidence-based decision-making to ensure Washington’s less well-off local school districts can reap maximum bang-for-buck as lawmakers, under a court mandate in the coming biennial budget session, work to shift more of the K-12 funding burden to the state. Braun is the new Chair of the State Senate’s Ways and Means Committee, which will play a crucial role in finalizing the 2017-19 state budget.

Different Views On Non-Classroom Expenditures

“Already in our school system, half the employees are not teachers, not here to teach. You’re going to add more non-teachers. I’d just like to see the research…I’m wondering why we’re adding other folks besides great teachers,” said Braun at the meeting to Deb Merle, senior policy advisor in the state Office of Financial Management. Merle was presenting Governor Jay Inslee’s K-12 education spending plan, part of his controversial biennial budget proposal. It includes $4.4 billion in new or raised taxes on businesses, all levels of carbon emitters, and on income earned from investments.

Defending the importance of non-classroom K-12 expenditures was House Majority Leader and task force member Pat Sullivan (D-47). He said, “We drive funding based upon a prototypical model that assumes a certain number of counselors, certain number of nurses, certain number of psychologists, social workers and family engagement coordinators.” Speaking to Merle, Sullivan added, “You may not have this information with you right now, but could we get that information, as a reminder to the people up here? I think it’s quite a surprise…”

Cost Control Opportunities Eyed

Roughly half of state public school employees for the 2015-16 school year are teachers, according to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. A 2012 state performance audit found 60 percent of the education funds that Washington school districts receive are spent in the classroom. Although that was one percent below the national average, the audit asserted that “opportunities exist for controlling costs outside the classroom.”

With the state budget again under pressure, fiscally-conservative Washington lawmakers now bridle at the notion, advanced by the State Supreme Court in its 2012 McCleary ruling, that they haven’t met their “paramount duty” to “fully fund” basic education.

They point to the additional $4.8 billion for K-12 they’ve appropriated since 2012, without raising taxes. They argue that approach can work again, as the task force develops for the House and Senate a plan to shift more local school costs to the state.

Because of wide fiscal disparities between districts, some rural lawmakers continue to eye a “levy swap.” It would raise the state property tax rate while lowering local district rates, and further redistribute state-collected school revenues from richer to poorer communities. The idea has drawn stiff opposition from a number of suburban Seattle districts concerned they would pay more, yet get less.

Stark Dichotomies On Tax Rates, Per-Pupil Spending

At the task force meeting, Braun said the state’s education “opportunity gap has a lot to do with addressing kids in poverty,” in less affluent communities. He emphasized that property owners in the Aberdeen School District pay a levy rate of $4.50 per $1,000 assessed value (AV). That rate is almost four times greater than the Seattle School District’s $1.20. Yet Aberdeen spent $11,602 per student for 2014-15, versus $12,665 in Seattle.

Other examples abound, across the state. Paso’s school levy tax rate is $4.32; and the district spent $10,025 per student for 2014-15. In Ephrata, the rate is $4.99, with $9,820 in per-pupil spending. In contrast, the Lake Chelan School District taxes property owners at a $1.54 rate and spends $11,170 per student. At $0.73 per $1,000 AV, the San Juan district has one of the lowest local school levy rates, but was able to spend $11,444 per student.

Other factors are equally or more influential, and harder to engineer for equity across all districts in the state. These include average household income and educational level of parents, and teaching practices and experience.

Templates For 2017 Action Are Many

Like Braun, fellow task force member State Sen. Christine Rolfes (D-23) believes the current local levy system needs revision. She described it as “really complicated, messy, and unequal.”

State Rep. Dan Griffey (R-35), now completing a stint on the House Education Committee, said some lawmakers are looking at Senate Bill 6109 from 2015 as a possible template for 2017 action.

Introduced by then-State Sen. Bruce Dammeier (R-25), the bill would have restricted all district levy rates starting in 2020 to $1.25 per $1,000 AV, while simultaneously raising the state property tax to $3.60 per $1,000 AV. The state property tax rate in 2015 was $2.19. The bill was heard in Senate Ways and Means Committee, but failed to advance.

Another option would involve rescinding the current cap on aggregate local levy revenue, now set at 28 percent of combined state and federal allocations to a district, while tightly restricting how the money could be spent, said Rolfes. However, she added that option appears unlikely to gain traction.

Roles said another choice could be to eliminate that 28 percent levy cap, and replace it with an individual tax rate limit for each district.

Griffey said he believes levy reform will involve “some form of capping” the amount districts can raise, and eliminating inequities. “The idea about capping is that everybody pays the same,” he said.

However, that might still leave the state with unfunded basic education spending no longer met by local levies. To fill that gap, Rolfes envisions a McCleary package with “a combination of everything on the table” during session, such as government spending cuts and some new taxes.

However, Griffey warns that rural communities in his district “don’t have a whole lot more to give…With property growth restrictions through central planning” via the Growth Management Act, “we have not been able to regain our economic foothold,” he said. “We have to do this (McCleary funding) in a creative way to minimize the impact to the citizens of the state of Washington.”

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