There’s no doubt about it: The dominant issue facing the 2017 Legislature will be reaching compliance with the state Supreme Court’s McCleary mandate to the state to fully fund the cost of basic education. Lawmakers response to the case, decided in January 2012, will have enduring consequences for state fiscal policy and defining the state’s proper funding and policy role with respect to local school districts. And that’s not to mention the sometimes heated discussion regarding the separation of powers.
A new report from the Washington Research Council provides important context for understanding the coming legislative debate. In McCleary Deadline Approaching, But How Long Will the Solution Last?, the WRC reviews previous court rulings that paved the way for McCleary, identifies how Washington funds the public schools (the state plays an unusually dominant role here relative to other states, which rely more on local revenues), discusses McCleary-compliance actions taken by the Legislature since the 2012 decision, and examines possible next steps.
The 17-page report ought to be required reading for legislative candidates this year. As well, it will help inform voters for whom school funding is a priority consideration. A few points from the report’s summary:
State funding for public schools has increased by 40.6 percent since 2009–11.
Washington had the third highest funding increases per student nationally from 2008 to 2016.
Property taxes are a major source of school funding.
Since 2012, the Legislature has fully funded or committed to fully fund its definition of basic education.
The remaining items are state funding of school compensation and the elimination of the use of local levies for basic education.
… many estimates of the biennial cost to the state to assume responsibility for compensation are in the $3 to $4 billion range. (It could be lower or higher than that.)
As the WRC report makes clear, the remaining McCleary issues are complex. A legislative task force working on some of the unresolved compensation issues is assembling data and will report to the full Legislature by January. The WRC also highlights some of the measures likely to be considered next session. For example: Changes in teacher compensation and collective bargaining; new or increased taxes, including a capital gains tax or income tax; an increase in the state property tax offset in whole or part by reductions in local levies (the levy swap); even a constitutional amendment that would explicitly increase local districts’ role in education funding, while reducing the highly-centralized state role that stems from the “paramount duty” language.
More on that last possibility.
As part of the state budget, education is just one of many competing priorities. At the local level, voters have direct incentives to fund education. Recall that M&O levies almost always pass in Washington. Conversely, when the Legislature raises taxes, voters can and have rejected them via initiative.
Along these lines, state Senator Reuven Carlyle has written,
In our state, the romantic image of strong funding from the state government has not been realized. Political impasse over generations has created a system with unconstitutional funding structures, relatively poor student outcomes and great inequality. A case can be made that Washington’s top-down approach disconnects schools from their natural, strongest base of support—local families and communities.
The report examines these and other ideas in some detail. It’s well worth your time and serves as an important reminder that there’s more, much more, to McCleary compliance than funding alone.
The decision, controversial and complex as it is, affords lawmakers an opportunity for creativity and innovation in shaping education policy for the next generation. Yes, dollars play an important role. But to limit our thinking to funding alone would be a costly mistake.