The core issue in the Washington State Supreme Court’s McCleary decision is the state’s obligation to fund basic education. The Legislature defines “basic education” via statute, but without an explicit guarantee of funding all of it. In McCleary, the Supreme Court seeks to enforce the funding of “basic education” using a “prototypical model” for class sizes per teacher, and all the support staff and services (e.g., supplies, buses, books, etc.) that go along with it.
Unfortunately, the only portion of this model that has been fully funded over time is the number of teachers in the formula, and only at the state-funded pay level. The Legislature allocates additional money for for supplies, administration, classified staff and transportation, but not enough to cover what is required in the model. And here’s the catch – school districts are required to provide the level of services as defined by statute no matter the contribution from the state. So, how do school districts make up the difference between what the law requires compared to the amount the state provides? From local levies, of course.
This shift of funding from the state to local districts has been happening for a generation, with the Legislature funding the rest of budget at $2 for every $1 it puts into education. In fact, education funding often has been the bargaining chip around negotiations for other policies such as temporary taxes, new revenue schemes, and income tax initiatives, to name a few.
Local district levies originally were designed to fund local needs and enhancements, but over time those funds were siphoned off to fund the “basic education” that the state shortchanges. Did you know that some districts spend as much as 80% of their locally-raised money to pay for basic education? That’s why McCleary isn’t just about writing a large check to fully fund education. It’s also about creating a stable, uniform and equitable system of funding. Simply put, local money should fund local programs, and the Legislature should fund “basic education.”
Right now the legislature is considering three different proposals to address this issue. So far, the most promising one comes from Senator Bruce Dammeier (R-Puyallup). It would decrease local levy taxes and then increase state property taxes that go directly to fund basic education by the same dollar amount. And most importantly, it would ensure that locally-raised dollars are used to fund local needs, not basic education.
The Legislature is working hard to find a solution that corrects this messy, inequitable situation that has been over 20 years in the making. As the negotiations move forward, it’s important to keep in mind that these proposed solutions will not mean local districts lose taxing authority. They will instead help ensure that local authority is restored to what was originally intended by directing locally-raised dollars to programs and needs unique to that district.