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Guest Opinion: Neal Kirby: Equity problems remain after court’s school ruling

The state Supreme Court ruled Nov. 15 that the Legislature is still out of compliance with the state constitution for failing to meet “ample provisions” requirements, saying another $1 billion or so has to be added to education funding.

The new education finance laws also leave the school districts with the highest rates of poverty and minorities with the lowest paid teachers and lowest local levy funding, creating doubts the state has met its constitutional mandate in Article IX:

“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” and “the legislature shall provide for a general and uniform system of public schools.”

The 2017 Legislature, instead, ended equal state salary funding and drastically increased state salary funding for the wealthiest districts. Some districts will now receive as much as 24 percent more in pay for their teachers than 200 other districts. Most King, Snohomish, and Kitsap county schools will get 18 percent more.

In Eastern Washington, most districts keep the base pay; only Spokane, Mead, Moses Lake, Wenatchee, Odessa, Richland, Stehekin, and West Valley (Yakima) get 6 percent more than the base; and no others get more than 6 percent.

Local levy tax rates are also cut to the lowest of $1.50/$1,000 assessed valuation or $2,500 per student. Districts too poor to collect $1,500 per student from $1.50/$1,000 receive a state match to bring them up to $1,500. There will be a $0.82/$1,000 increase in the state property tax to help pay the increased salaries in the Puget Sound, but between the local levy cut and the new state tax, most Eastern Washington districts will get a net property tax cut.

King County’s richest districts will collect $2,500 per student from the levy, 66 percent more than 200 other districts.

The new laws are great for urban schools, but rural schools, despite paying the same tax rates, are denied equal educational services. The court didn’t rule on the equity issues. The McCleary court case only deals with the “ample provision” clause.

The new laws codify institutional discrimination against districts with the highest percentages of poor and minority students, leaving them less capable of attracting and retaining teachers or providing equal enrichment and sports programs. Institutional discrimination is mistreatment of a group through unequal selection or bias, intentional or unintentional.

The salary plan contradicts state-commissioned research. The state’s Compensation Technical Working Group considered extensive research on attracting and retaining teachers. The group concluded in 2012 that state salary funding should be equal.

University of Washington research, 2005 and 2006, showed rural areas have the highest teacher turnover and King County the lowest. Central Washington has the highest teacher attrition, highest minority counts, and highest poverty counts.

In “K-12 Finance and Student Performance Study,” the Legislative Audit and Review Committee found students in the poorest districts had the lowest scores and teachers with the least training and experience.

In “A Review of K-12 Regional Cost Issues,” the state’s Office of Financial Management found housing was most costly in urban areas, but found no evidence it led to greater teacher attrition. Yet, the state salary plan is based on housing costs.

The state constitution calls for a uniform system for all students, including equal opportunities to attract and retain quality teachers and provide equal enrichment for struggling students.

McCleary dealt with “ample provision” in the constitution but didn’t address “preference” on account of color and caste or “uniform system of public schools.” No judgment was given on equity.

The justices ruled the state needs to add $1 billion more to education, but why would any legislator support more taxes unless their schools are treated equally?

Neal Kirby is a Centralia School Board member, former principal of Inchelium High School and former state representative from the 7th Legislative District in northeast Washington.


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