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.