The WA School Funding Puzzle
Dear Group, I started writing this post in response to multiple recent articles (A, B, C) in the Spokesman discussing the layoff notices for the 2019-20 school year sent out by School District 81. Shawn Vestal, an author I generally hold in high esteem, posted an article April 17, “School layoffs and renewed push for higher local taxes show school funding far from fixed,” that falls short of his usual incisiveness. In it he succumbs to the general outrage and irritation other Spokesman articles stoke. His article is a litany of complaint against the work of every judicial, legislative, local, and non-governmental entity that arguably led to the impending layoffs of hard working teachers and the expected inequitable reshuffling of the remainder. By all means, read Shawn Vestal’s article. I share the outrage, the anger, but the sequence that led us to the current impasse involves multiple small decisions, each made within a devilishly complex budgetary framework I wager 99% of voters only dimly comprehend and all the Spokesman articles ignore or inadequately explain. (BTW, I include myself in that tally, an issue I mean to change, starting below.) A few facts: 1) School funding is a big deal in Washington State. In the 2017-19 biennium (budgets are done in two year chunks, it turns out. Who knew?), the State government’s education budget was 26 billion dollars, representing 60 percent of a roughly 43 billion dollar total 2 year budget. The education budget is, at the WA State governmental level, a big deal. It behooves us to try to understand how it works. 2) Article IX (Education), Section 1 of the Washington State Constitution (enacted in 1889, one hundred years after the U.S. Constitution) states: It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex. The McCleary Decision (2012) and a Doran decision (1977) rest on this Article of the State Constitution. 3) Among the summary findings of McCleary (worth your time to read) one finds: Ample funding for basic education must be accomplished by means of dependable and regular tax sources. and The word “ample” in article IX, section 1 provides a broad constitutional guideline meaning fully, sufficient, and considerably more than just adequate. Ever since the McCleary Decision in 2012 the Washington State legislature has struggled to comply. You can read a concise summary of the struggle under the the sub-title Subsequent Developments in the wikipedia article on McCleary. All of the news coverage of those efforts I have read is head-spinningly difficult to follow, mired in opaque terminology, and most of it, including Shawn Vestal’s article, misses the point, simply this: Washington State has failed its own Constitution by not providing “ample” funding from “dependable and regular tax sources.” The current disturbing and sad circumstances of teacher layoffs in District 81 stem not from the McCleary Decision itself, but from the tax system of the State of Washington. Who, we might ask, is responsible for that? Here’s my answer: We the voters are responsible. We the voters who recoil in horror at any mention of the word “tax.” We the voters who have swallowed a diet of discord telling us government spending is always suspect and unionized teachers are lazy, tenured, pampered dead wood awaiting a cushy retirement. On Wednesday I want to review the funding sources for the Washington State budget, 60% of which is spend on education. Keep to the high ground, Jerry P.S. A visit to the language of education funding as presented by the local media is dizzying. The “McCleary Court Decision” (2012) is routinely confused with the “McCleary fix” (legislation passed in December 2018) as if the Supreme Court had mandated the solution (it didn’t). One learns haphazardly from other articles that “basic education” doesn’t include either “special education” or the salaries for school librarians. Somewhere along the line the “McCleary fix” capped local levies at “$1.50” and that’s the proximate cause of the looming shortfall. How does that work and what does it look like on my property tax bill? All that said, the elephant in the room is our tax system. In the midst of all this State Senator Mark Schoesler (R, LD9, the mostly rural district south of Spokane) is given a platform by the Spokesman to opine that it’s not the legislature’s fault, it’s the school district’s. Schoesler is the Republican minority leader in the State Senate, a man who never met a tax he thought was justified or a salary for a state employee that was low enough.