Some useful background reading to help navigate the school-funding debates

With school funding dominating the 2017 legislative agenda, it’s sometimes (often? inevitably?) hard to understand the options under consideration or the reasons the state finds itself under a court mandate. Terms like “levy swap” or “levy cliff” are not self-explanatory. And there’s ongoing disagreement in the Legislature over what exactly is required to satisfy the McCleary mandate

In the Seattle Times, education reporter Claudia Rowe has a good backgrounder on the state’s difficult school-funding history.

Today’s question was the top vote-getter: How long did it take to get this far behind in school funding and how did it happen?

Short answer:

Funding for public education in Washington has been scrutinized and debated at least since 1976, when the Seattle school district sued the state. “Faced with a deteriorating physical plant, a reduction in budgets for books, supplies, staff and programs” — not to mention two local levies to fill these holes shot down by voters — the district claimed that money to cover education was neither ample, as required in the state constitution, nor reliable.

Other districts made similar claims and, 

…in 1977 the Washington State Supreme Court agreed, mandating that more state money flow to public schools to cover the basics.

But definitions of what constitutes “basic education” expanded in 1993 and 2009 — to encompass kindergarten, remedial and highly-capable programs and transportation, among other items — and the state Legislature, while approving these additions, has not kept up with paying for them or covering numerous other costs.

She also has a longer explanation, which helps fill in the gaps. We again recommend reading this Washington Research Council Special Report to get a better understanding of the challenges and complexities of getting school funding right. 

The News Tribune reports on the “levy cliff” debate in Olympia right now.

Democrats in Olympia want the Legislature to delay a planned cut to school districts’ local taxing authority, which threatens to reduce school districts’ budgets by millions of dollars in the 2017-18 school year if a new state funding plan isn’t worked out.

Starting in January 2018, school districts throughout the state stand to lose about $358 million per year if the Legislature doesn’t postpone changes to how much they can collect in local property taxes, according to estimates by legislative staff.

School district officials say the budget impact would be even higher — closer to $500 million annually across the state’s 295 school districts.

…The so-called “levy cliff” is of lawmakers’ own making. In 2010, the Legislature voted to temporarily increase school districts’ ability to raise money through their local property tax levies, a move intended to help cash-strapped districts weather the economic recession.
If lawmakers solve the McCleary problem this year, the levy cliff ceases to be an issue, which is why

Republicans disagree that lawmakers should delay the planned reduction in school-district levy authority. Instead, they say the Legislature should focus on solving the state’s larger problem: Shouldering the full cost of paying teachers and other school employees.

The levy swap is a different issue and one covered well in the WRC report referenced above. The Daily News considers how the swap works and the urban-rural politics likely to affect legislative consideration.

A complicated proposal called a “levy swap” may yet arise as one of the ways for the Legislature to comply with the 2012 Supreme Court McCleary decision, which ordered the state to fully fund basic education.

19th District state Sen. Dean Takko says the idea could pit urban against rural legislators. Representatives from rural areas — who are largely Republican but include Southwest Washington Democrats Takko and state Rep. Brian Blake — support the idea, which could make state school funding more equitable for small, rural school districts.

“If we do a levy swap, (rural districts) will probably come out ahead on it,” said Takko, though he added that he didn’t think the swap would be enough to address McCleary. “Whether it’s a whole lot or a little bit, we would benefit from a levy swap here.”

Homeowners in “property-rich” districts like Seattle would get significant property tax hikes under this plan. But schools in Southwest Washington may benefit.

 The idea has been around since 2012 and seems still to have traction, though not clear majority support has formed behind any specific implementation plan. 
As the air will be filled with much more about swaps, cliffs, and court orders in the next few months, we thought it timely to pull together some context.