A creeping problem: state’s unequal education funding

Like a little added “winter weight,” or blackberry vines overtaking a property, some problems just creep up on you. A little inattention is followed by the realization that, hey, we’ve got a serious problem here.

That’s the case with our K-12 system’s over-reliance on local school levies. That problem is an important component of the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision. The court said local Maintenance & Operations levies are being used improperly to fund basic education needs that should be covered by the state.

It’s about more than the state’s need to step up and fully fund basic education, though. It’s also about fairness for all of our schoolkids. Different school districts have vastly different funding streams available to them based on local property values.

Allowing this disparity to grow is like saying we’re OK with some kids’ educational opportunities being limited by their ZIP code. Article IX of the state constitution calls for a “uniform system of public schools.” How can the system be uniform when the money available for basic education varies significantly by district? It’s profoundly unfair.

No money for new textbooks? Sorry, Johnny, you should live in a wealthier school district.

Not a new problem
This isn’t the first time our state has confronted this issue. The state Supreme Court’s 1978 Doran decision upheld a lower court ruling “that Washington school districts relied too much on local levies to pay for public education, and that this violated the state’s constitutional requirement to fund the schools.”

The Legislature responded by increasing state funding for schools and capping local levies at 10% of a district’s overall spending. Legislators later lifted the cap, though, and districts are now capped at different rates – between 28% and as high as 38%.

After the caps were lifted, the problem started creeping back up. It’s illustrated in the chart below that compares state property tax revenues to local school Maintenance & Operations levies. After the Doran decision in 1978, state funding increased and local levies were readjusted to meet the ruling. Over time, those M&O levies slowly grew and grew, to the point that over-reliance on local levies is once again a problem in our K-12 system.

That’s precisely what Article IX of the state constitution is designed to prevent. The unbalanced and unfair nature of that funding is a central holding of the Doran decision. It’s a central holding of the McCleary decision. So it’s time our K-12 system lives up to its central promise: a “uniform system” that treats all our kids fairly, no matter their ZIP code.
-Rob McKenna

M&O chart 2

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.
  • yaki534

    It is time for people that in every township there is a school section and any timber sales or lease money from that 640 acres belong to the schools in the district. We need to get back to logging not only for that, but for proper forest management.

  • Ken Mortland

    In the last four decades, the Judicial Branch of WA State Government has twice declared the Legislative Branch’s funding of public education to be constitutionally inadequate. It’s clear that funding public education in WA State is a problem and there’s enough “responsibility” to go around that finger pointing
    at one party is inappropriate. We need to find a bipartisan, long term resolution.

    However, I have two problems with this article. First, for political leadership that is nearly obsessed with teacher accountability, the “passive voice” used in this article avoids dealing with the root causes of the problem. The Legislature has
    failed to develop a sufficient and reliable revenue stream that can provide full funding for the educational requirements it has mandated.

    Second, the article focuses only upon the revenues coming from property taxes. That would seem to imply that resolution of the Legislative failure to fully fund
    education will be limited to the revenues provided by property taxes. If one looks at the combined figures for each year, the total would seem to fall well short of the overall spending on education and woefully short of the funding needed to fully fund education. The logical inference is that we’re currently using more than property taxes to fund education and any long term resolution to this funding problem will necessarily involve the use of other tax revenue besides property taxes.

    WA State’s tax system is both antiquated and regressive. Any resolution to the
    problem of fully funding education will have to address the limitations,
    inconsistencies, and inadequacies of that system. All existing and potential sources of revenue need to be on the table during this endeavor.

    I am not so naïve as to imagine that will be an easy task. One factor we must always consider is that the tax revenue we use to provide services we’ve agreed should be provided comes from taxpayers who rather not surrender those funds. To ignore that fundamental principle is to embark upon folly.

    We have wasted four legislative sessions by limiting ourselves to the growth in
    the state’s economy. We have three remaining legislative session s in which to craft a resolution to a century old problem. We need to get serious.

  • Art Hyland

    Why accept the premise that the state constitution’s “uniform system of public schools” requires the state to completely control how those funds are spent and what curriculum to teach? Add up the total monies budgeted for (K-12)schools (including monies devoted to brick and mortar), divide it by the number of students in the state to obtain the state subsidy per student, and send the amount to each district equal to their number of students x the state subsidy above. Let the districts decide how to spend their money; some will want bare bones buildings and higher pay for teachers; some will want education to be tough and disciplined, while others want coddling and inclusionary pablum; their choice. The state constitution doesn’t require the state to dictate how to spend the money, just that it’s available on an equal basis.

    I don’t expect this concept to take hold because of the incredibly intrenched powers in Olympia, but Rob, I’d like to hear your ideas about the power and control that Olympia has gathered to itself over the years; education is the one area where that power is overwhelming. This is coming from a former school board member who witnessed how local school boards have been essentially weakened to the positions of potted plants because of the mandates, money and power that emanates from Olympia.

  • Libs Are Dopes

    According to the chart, Washingtonians are paying 9.3 times
    more in property taxes in 2014 than they did in 1976 (($1,975,407 minus $191,307)
    divided by $191,307). According to the Consumer Price Index, prices and
    presumably wages have risen 4.2 times over the same period of time (it took $4,160
    in 2014 to purchase what $1,000 purchased in 1976). In other words, WA State
    property taxes have risen 2.24 times more than inflation (9.3 divided by 4.2).

    But there’s more; the amount education is getting from Local
    M&O Levies has grown more than what they‘re getting from property taxes. Taxpayers
    are paying 11.8 times more for Local M&O Levies in 2014 than they were in
    1976 (($2,138,425 minus $167,401) divided by $167,401). That is 2.83 times more
    than the rate of inflation (11.8 divided by 4.2).

    So adjusted for inflation and assuming education is getting
    the same percentage of state property taxes in 2014 as it was in 1976, education
    is getting over 2 times more than it was 39 years ago.

    Meanwhile student achievement is flat-lined or worse. If
    bigger government is the answer, it was a very stupid question.