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Guest Opinion: Neal Kirby: New levy laws unfair to rural schools

The Washington state Legislature recently changed school levy laws. The new law will allow the richest urban schools to collect a lot more dollars per student from local levies than the poorest districts for sports, music and other after-school programs.

The state Supreme Court has to decide if the new education funding laws meet the requirements of McCleary, the court’s ruling that the state has not adequately funded basic education for all the state’s students as required by the state constitution.

The court will have a hearing on the state’s new school funding plan on Oct 24.

The new state law will restrict local school levy tax rates to $1.50 per thousand dollars of assessed valuation. The richest districts are allowed to collect $2,500 per student with that tax rate or less. Districts that collect less than $1,500 per student will have it guaranteed by a state match that brings the funds up to $1,500.

The local levies the richest districts can collect each year is 66 percent more per student than what the poorest districts can collect.

Sports programs in the poorest school districts will be at a significant disadvantage when it comes to competing for the best coaches, coaching assistants, equipment, number of sports, and number of kids who can turn out.

Levy money can be used for far more than sports, though. It can also help fund music programs, field trips, Future Farmers of America, science club, student government, choir, plays, cheerleading, chess club, dances (such as senior ball), vocational competitions, robotics, sports medicine, yearbook, newspaper and more.

Levies can fund after-school support programs for students, too, such as a place for latch-key students, remedial programs for underachieving students and summer school.

Activities are critical to school culture, often playing a critical role in keeping students in school and achieving grades that keep them in activities. The levy also pays the salary for coaches and class and club advisers.

Districts with 66 percent higher local levies will provide a far richer program than those without.

The state Legislature also passed a regional salary plan that will leave most rural schools at the bottom of the pay scale. All Spokane County schools will receive the lowest state salary funding for their employees, except Mead and Spokane school districts. Mead and Spokane will receive 6 percent more than the rest, giving them a better chance to attract and retain teachers.

Across the state, most King, Snohomish and Kitsap county school districts will receive 18 percent more than the base pay that most teachers in Spokane County and most of Eastern Washington will get.

Extensive research by both the University of Washington’s Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession and the U.S. Department of Education has shown that poorer rural areas have the highest teacher turnover. In Washington, the highest teacher attrition is in central Washington, from Oroville to Grandview.

The same research shows the most urbanized areas, in particular King County, have the lowest teacher turnover in the state. The regional salary plan will provide the King County districts significantly higher pay, giving them an advantage in attracting and retaining teachers, contributing to even higher attrition in the poorest schools.

The state Supreme Court should rule that the Legislature has left in place gross inequities in education funding and has still inadequately funded Washington’s rural and poorest schools.

The schools in central Washington also have the highest percentages of students in poverty and the highest minority counts, leaving questions about institutional discrimination in the state’s most recent plan, which the court should not tolerate.

The court should reject the new funding plan, and send the Legislature back to work.

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


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