McCleary decision about more than just fully funding schools

As Olympia grapples with the state Supreme Court’s decision in the McCleary case on education funding, policy makers continue to focus on fully funding the legislature’s definition of basic education. How best to do that is a big question, and it deserves much thought.

There are other aspects to the case, though, that must be addressed. In addition to the adequate funding conundrum, the McCleary decision also requires that schools around the state be funded in a uniform, stable way.

That’s where the trouble comes in. If our schools are to be uniformly funded, then clearly our current system of school funding needs to change. As structured now, school districts:

  1. Are over-reliant on local levies, and some of those levy funds go to salaries and basic education, which are supposed to be funded by the state
  2. Districts’ maximum levy rates differ greatly and are set through a complicated formula based on historical precedent
  3. The taxable property base in districts around the state varies wildly

Reaching consensus on those issues may make the adequate funding issue look like the easy one to solve. With 295 different school districts around the state examining potential changes and the impact to their budgets, lawmakers will be under a lot of pressure to get this one right.

The simplest solution remains the levy swap idea that I supported in 2012. The basic idea is to raise the state property tax to provide uniform, stable funding for schools while reducing local property taxes by a similar amount. This can be done in a revenue-neutral or near-revenue-neutral way, as McCleary funding demands.

It’s a bipartisan idea. Both former senator Joe Zarelli, a Republican, and current Rep. Ross Hunter, a Democrat, floated levy swap proposals a few years ago. Rep. Hunter said in a TVW interview recently that he still believes a levy swap is the best way to deal with the issue.

As News Tribune columnist Peter Callaghan points out in the link below, using levies for teacher compensation is another issue that must be addressed. These salaries are supposed to be paid out of state funds, with levy money being limited to what’s called TRI pay (Time, Responsibility, and Incentive). In reality, though, levy funds are being spent on teacher salaries. Callaghan writes:

What difference does it make? Using local levies for something as basic as compensation creates inequities and a lack of reliability. Districts with bigger levies and higher property values are able to shift more levy money to compensation. Smaller or poorer districts have to follow suit unless they want to face labor troubles or loss of staff to wealthier districts. All districts are pressured to use levy dollars – which are supposed to pay for extras and enhancements – for teacher pay (as well as such basic things as heat and books).

Callaghan noted that a working group appointed by the legislature to look at these issues “suggested simplifying the overly complex state salary grid and shifting from a system that rewards extra degrees and years of service with one that rewards performance.”

Paying for performance and switching to a truly state-set salary schedule, which would essentially reduce the teacher union leverage on a district-by-district basis, are both bound to be opposed by the Washington Education Association.

Two things are clear, though: You cannot address McCleary’s uniformity issue without addressing statewide teacher compensation, and linking teacher pay with evaluations of effectiveness is an idea whose time has come.

— Rob McKenna


Education bill’s unheralded details will need attention

Sometimes the best stuff is at the bottom of the press release and the end of the press conference.

Not to belittle the proposal last week by Senate Democrats to close a few tax loopholes and spend the money on public schools. It’s just that Gov. Jay Inslee beat them to it, House Democrats followed them by a day, and it’s only a trickle of what is going to be needed to meet the state Supreme Court’s order in the McCleary school-funding decision.

Deeper down in Senate Bill 6574, though, are some issues that few in the Legislature have been willing to take on – specifically, how teachers are paid and the size of local school levies.

Levies are the problem that everyone acknowledges but few want to tackle. Large levies — as high as 38 percent of a district’s budget — are both a cause and a symptom of school-funding problems exposed again in McCleary.

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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.