The Journal’s View: Levy-rate adjustment won’t resolve school funding woes
~April 25th, 2019
Our overarching hope is Washington state legislators can find some fiscally responsible ways to ease the budget challenges facing school districts, thereby saving at least some educators’ jobs.
That said, levy-cap flexibility, which would enable school districts to go to voters for more money for operations, isn’t the solution to current funding woes. Such a measure would put a greater portion of the education funding burden back on local districts and could make the state susceptible to another lawsuit.
We’ll expand on this, but first, here’s a little background. A state Supreme Court decision, known widely as the McCleary decision, essentially determined the state wasn’t shouldering enough of the burden in funding basic, K-12 education. After a few years of attempting to meet its obligation, the state came up with a funding mechanism that satisfied the court in advance of the 2018-19 school year. As part of that solution, the state dedicated more money to education and capped the levy rate for school districts.
Now, after giving teachers substantial raises, in many instances, during the first windfall of state funds, school districts are looking at big budget shortfalls and are faced with having to eliminate teaching positions. In Spokane Public Schools, for example, teachers received an average 13% pay increase last year. In its planning for the 2019-20 school year, the district is faced with a $31 million budget gap.
The local levy cap on property taxes prohibits districts from asking for more than $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value. For Spokane Public Schools, that’s $43.5 million less than it could seek prior to the shift in light of the McCleary decision. Of course, state funding is supposed to offset the loss of that funding capacity.
Some districts and the Washington Education Association, the statewide teachers’ union, have pushed for increasing the cap or adding some flexibility to it. If seen as a solution, such flexibility would put the burden on districts to go to voters to secure the funding. Those voters—at least, in the Spokane area—saw education-related property-tax rates go down with the shift in funding. If levy-rate flexibility were introduced, they would be asked to boost those taxes right back up. That’s a tough sell, even in a market like Spokane that traditionally has supported its schools.
But the bigger problem is this: If the whole point of McCleary was to shift the funding burden to the state, raising the levy rate would be contrary to that premise. After years of trying to come up with a solution that satisfied its obligation, the state might find itself back in court and looking for more solutions to a problem it had already resolved.
To its credit, Spokane Public Schools isn’t pushing for levy-rate flexibility. Instead, it’s working with the Legislature to secure full funding for special education, and legislators appear to be working with the districts in that regard.
Some tough decisions will need to be made in the coming months, and we certainly are sympathetic to those who face job losses, but the state and districts must ensure their solutions don’t create more problems.