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Education funding, levies both need fixing

When King County Judge John P. Erlick ruled this month that the state of Washington isn’t meeting its constitutional duty to fund schools, he was largely repeating the findings issued more than three decades earlier by Judge Robert Doran.

Erlick’s findings add urgency to the difficult work of the Legislature and the Quality Education Council to define basic education and figure out how to pay for it. But it also dangles a vital question in front of lawmakers, educators and voters across the state: How do we avoid drifting back into this situation again in a generation or so, as we did following Doran?

The answer is easier to identify than to implement: Keep a tight lid on local levies.

While Washington’s constitution makes it the state’s paramount duty “to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders,” local districts routinely turn to their taxpayers to make up for inadequacies in state funding, especially for such neglected needs as transportation and building maintenance.

Relying on local voters’ goodwill and generosity to fulfill the state’s constitutional mandate is unacceptable, Erlick ruled.

Doran said the same in the 1970s, and lawmakers responded by crafting a staffing formula that reflected essentially the level of schooling that was taking place at the time and then took over the local districts’ funding burden for it. To preserve communities’ options to provide enrichment programs above and beyond basic education, the Legislature allowed districts to ask for special levies up to 10 percent of the state allocation.

Over time, the 10 percent lid climbed to 24 percent, even as levies were made easier to pass and for longer periods of time.

If you’re thinking that Erlick’s fresh admonition against reliance on levies would reverse that trend, you’d be wrong. This session, the House has already passed, and the Senate is considering, a bill boosting the lid to 28 percent, apparently in the belief that the more than $2 billion now collected in special levies every year in Washington isn’t enough.

Make no mistake, local districts want the state to do its duty, but they want their levies, too. Most of that money is used to augment the amount districts receive from the state for the salaries and benefits given to teachers, classified staff and, most dramatically, administrators, who on average receive 75 percent more than the $59,929 the state allocates.

The onus now is fully on the state to accept its constitutional obligation. Once it does, local districts must learn to control their appetite for add-ons that, with time and familiarity, will surely smudge the line between basic education and enrichment and set the stage for another lawsuit.

The constitution is clear, and the courts have said so twice. Basic education is the state’s top job.

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