Use a levy swap to uniformly fund education

educationfundingAs just about everyone in Washington knows by now, our state Supreme Court has ordered more ample, uniform, and stable funding for our schools. The legislature made good progress toward that “ample” part of that goal this year, adding $1 billion more in the budget for our K-12 schools.

The legislature must not only add further dollars to schools going forward, but must also figure out how to make that funding uniform and stable. While legislators largely avoided the topic this year, it’s time to get the conversation started again on the idea of a levy swap, a smart policy that, though used in attack ads during the campaign last year, is a positive way to ensure that education is uniformly funded in all districts and that the money for schools comes from a stable source.

Chris Vance, who penned his first column for Smarter Government Washington last week, explained it well in Crosscut:

That means serious discussion and soon about shifting property tax revenue away from school districts and into the state coffers — the so called “levy swap” — in order to pay for statewide basic education as mandated by the Supreme Court. This shift doesn’t create new money, but it can provide $2 billion or more that the state needs to pay for things many school districts are using levies to pay for now, which is the issue at the heart of the McCleary case.

The $1 billion more the state put toward kindergarten to 12th grade (K-12) education in this new budget barely makes a dent in reaching full funding, and the 2018 deadline imposed by the court is looming. If major tax increases are off the table, the levy swap needs to be on, or the math just doesn’t add up.

Chris knows the school funding issue and the state Supreme Court’s requirements as well as anyone, having been a legislator and candidate for Superintendent for Public Instruction. He’s right that the levy swap is a rational policy that is also the most politically likely solution to gain the Supreme Court’s approval. The editorial board at the Tacoma News Tribune agrees, in a recent editorial.

The issue was also raised in the online blog PubliCola, which noted something interesting about the politics of the situation:

Now that people are beginning to worry about the instability of the $1 billion (much of it came from sweeping the capital budget) that the legislature put toward K-12 funding to meet the State Supreme Court’s mandate (they probably needed about $1.4 billion more, by the way, according to legislative staff estimates), the levy swap idea is rearing its head again.

Rep. Ross Hunter (D-48, Medina), an early advocate of the levy swap, who was told by his party to stand down after Inslee denounced it, promptly linked and seconded a Tacoma News Tribune editorial this morning calling the idea “critical” to education funding.

And Hunter chimed in: “This is one of the obvious moves for the 2015-17 budget, and we will start looking at something like it over the interim.”

It shouldn’t matter where good ideas come from (and to be clear, the levy swap wasn’t my idea – Rep. Hunter and former Sen. Joe Zarelli both advocated for early versions of the swap). What matters is doing right by our students and finding real solutions to the issues the court has ordered the legislature to solve. The levy swap remains a smart (and if so written, revenue-neutral) way to meet those goals, and I hope to see its momentum grow before the gavels drop again in Olympia in January.

— Rob McKenna

[On another topic, since it is in the same PubliCola piece, let me correct the impression that my support last year for a transportation package is at odds with the Senate Majority Caucus’ work during the legislative session. It is ironic that my support for the levy swap caused Democrats to tell their chief budget negotiator to “stand down” on the subject, even though he knows it’s the right policy, but those same Democrats keep using a false version of my position on a transportation package to attack the Senate Majority Caucus.  Perhaps they conveniently forgot what I said during the campaign was that a transportation package should sent to the voters for final approval – a position rejected by the House Democrats. I said then, and continue to believe, that any transportation package should have to meet with voter approval – and that will require the legislature to write a package that will appeal to voters.]

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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.