Education funding is complicated. In the past year, New York, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, and very recently, Washington state have struggled with paying for education. On August 13 the Washington Supreme Court ordered the state to pay $100,000 per day in sanctions for its failure to produce a plan to fully fund a basic education for students in the state.
These sanctions resulted from the Legislature’s failure to comply with the court’s opinion in McCleary et al. v. State of Washington, a lawsuit filed by two families in 2007. In 2012 the court agreed that the state was not meeting its constitutional duty to “make ample provision for the education of all children within its borders” and tasked the Legislature with finding a solution (aka fund the funds). To date, it has failed to do so and the penalties are racking up.
In Washington, schools receive state funds allocated by the Legislature and local funds raised through levies. In a perfect world, the state funds would provide the basic education required by the state constitution. The local funds would be used for enhancements such as improved technology or art or extracurricular programs.
But no one lives in a perfect world. For example, during the Great Recession, the state had to reduce funding for teachers’ cost of living increases. Local revenues were used to make up the difference. It sounds simple enough, but teacher salaries should be paid using state funds because teachers are part of the basic education requirement.
As noted at the outset, education funding is complicated. It involves, among other issues, state and local tax, how funds are disbursed equitably across all localities, and whether funding should be based on the number of students or the number of teachers. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.
One current solution being proposed by a bipartisan group of state legislators would establish statewide salary allocations for school employees that are competitive, market-based, and based on comparable wages. Wage analysis would be done every four years. The bill, SB 6130, would also require school districts to establish a local revenue fund and would set guidelines for how the school district could use local levies. The ultimate goal of the bill is to reduce the reliance of school districts on local levies by increasing the funding they receive from the state.
But there are two glaring problems. First, there is no way to pay for the bill. While the bill acknowledges that additional revenue will be required and that it should not come from reductions to other parts of the budget, there is no indication where the Legislature intends to find the revenue. Second, legislators are not yet in agreement about how much money they need to find. The court’s opinion in McCleary did not set a dollar amount that would satisfy its mandate.
The situation has turned into a political stalemate, with Republicans condemning the state supreme court for its order and sanctions and Democrats pointing the finger at tax breaks in the late 1990s that have deprived schools of the funds they need now. Current proposals to find additional funds for education include a property tax increase and a capital gains tax, both potentially unpopular with voters. Discussions will undoubtedly continue, but a solution is not expected anytime soon.