That’s not right: McCleary isn’t a menu to pick and choose from

Many cheered in 2012 when the state Supreme Court issued its K-12 funding ruling in the McCleary case. Today, some of the groups that hailed it at the time seem to be suffering from selective amnesia.

The McCleary decision is a three-legged stool, but that message has been lost. The court ruled that K-12 funding must be ample, it must be stable, and it must be equal.

Some interested parties, including the state teachers union, are pretty enthusiastic about that first part. The whole “more money” thing is alright with them.

What about the other two parts, requiring stability and equality? The reactions range from ambivalence to outright hostility.

A solution that ignores the problem
Legislative Democrats showed that they’re not quite digging the idea that schools funding must be stable. They sought to meet McCleary through a proposed capital gains tax.

Only trouble is, it’s one of the most unstable tax sources they could have chosen. California’s example makes that clear, where capital gains taxes “amplify boom-and-bust cycles in revenue” and “are difficult to predict.”

Gov. Jay Inslee acknowledged in a press conference this week that a capital gains tax isn’t going to happen this year. But if seeking a stable revenue source was at the forefront of their minds, Inslee and House Democrats wouldn’t have chosen capital gains in the first place.

An even bigger blind spot
The gap between wealthy, property-rich school districts and other districts, the court found, is too wide. The situation is inequitable and unconstitutional. The quality of a child’s education shouldn’t be determined by their ZIP code.

The problem was created – the court was clear on this – by the state’s overreliance on local levies to fund education. Not everyone is anxious to fix that problem, including the state teachers union. It wants higher state funding but doesn’t want to see any reductions in local funding.

The union’s goal of higher funding from all sources means it has to pretty much ignore the part of McCleary about inequality. The thought of reducing high local levies, which is what drives the inequality between districts, is anathema to the union. Raising state taxes while keeping local taxes high is what the union means by “local control.”

Local school leaders are conflicted on this issue as well. When the state was underfunding K-12 schools, local levies were their path to full funding. They want flexibility and, yes, all-around higher funding (but, their association might be too busy comparing opponents to Goebbels to be thinking clearly on the issue).

The inequality issue isn’t a new problem. Before its 2012 McCleary ruling, the court previously ruled in 1978’s Doran case that the state was unconstitutionally over-relying on local levies. The Legislature capped local levies in response, but allowed them to creep back up over time, creating the same problem all over again.

If legislators today took the union’s preferred route and once again ignored the problem of inequitable schools funding, the result will be another ruling requiring the state to fix the problem. Or, legislators could end the madness and directly deal with all three important components of McCleary, not just the parts their allies like.
-Rob McKenna

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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.