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News >  Column

Shawn Vestal: School layoffs and renewed push for higher local taxes show school funding far from fixed

UPDATED: Wed., April 17, 2019, 6:38 a.m.

Spokane Public Schools superintendent Shelley Redinger delivers the grim news of major budget cutbacks for the school district on Thursday, April 11, 2019. Next week at three Spokane high schools, the district will hold open-house-style listening sessions with the community on all facets of the budget - and some hot-button issues. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Public Schools superintendent Shelley Redinger delivers the grim news of major budget cutbacks for the school district on Thursday, April 11, 2019. Next week at three Spokane high schools, the district will hold open-house-style listening sessions with the community on all facets of the budget - and some hot-button issues. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Seven years later, after the state Supreme Court commanded the Legislature to improve school funding …

After repeated, ridiculous and frustrating legislative foot-dragging …

After a complicated “fix” to spend more state money and change school funding that was hatched practically in secret in Olympia …

After the court gave that fix its stamp of approval …

After the fog of confusion that descended on local school districts about the ramifications or even the basic math of that supposed fix …

After administrators agreed to labor contracts with big raises they insisted they could not afford and which consume nearly all of the increased educational funding …

And now, after our local school district has revealed it will lay off hundreds of employees if it is not rescued – now, somehow, we are again considering the very money-generating mechanism that the Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional in the first place: raising local levies to cover a budget shortfall.

It would be hard to imagine a larger collapse between the intentions of a thing – the 2012 McCleary ruling that the Legislature provide “ample” funding for our schools as required by the state constitution – and the concrete result of the efforts to achieve those intentions.

There is surplus blame to go around, and there is a hugely complicated set of factors and decision-makers involved. But with the news that the Washington Education Association, school officials and lawmakers are seeking legislation to again allow local districts to raise their levies to cover the consequences of expensive new labor contracts, we can no longer apply the word “fix” to what’s happened in the wake of the McCleary decision.

Surely, when the court called for the state to do better in amply funding basic education, it was not calling for bigger paychecks for fewer educators.

Surely, it was not seeking the wholesale elimination of school librarians.

Surely, the justices were not hoping for layoffs that result in the complete protection of seniority-rich staff at wealthy high schools and the gutting of staffs at schools in poorer neighborhoods where younger teachers face heavier lifts.

Surely, the court’s interpretation of spending amply on improving education was not meant as a call to return to the very funding method that it deemed unconstitutional.

It was 44 years ago that a Washington judge first concluded that our system of funding education was not meeting the constitutional requirement that the state’s “paramount duty” was to make “ample provision” for education. In that 1975 case, a Thurston County judge ruled that the state’s system of funding education – and particularly its reliance on local levies to make up shortfalls in state funding – was unconstitutional.

At that point, local school districts in Washington had become increasingly reliant on local levies to cover what the state wasn’t covering. Between 1960 and 1974, according to the McCleary decision, local districts had gone from drawing 6.8% of their funding from local levies to 25.6%.

At that point, the state began to wrestle with what constitutes “basic education.” The Legislature spent years trying to come up with a definition along with plans to improve schools. Early on, the Legislature tried to stem the reliance on local levies, by capping such tax requests at 10% of districts’ budgets.

What came next were annual displays of legislative fiddling. Year after year, session after session, lawmakers convened task forces, debated educational standards and policies, called for this improvement and that improvement, produced gaseous clouds of good intentions – all without coming up with a regular, reliable source of money for them. Meanwhile, they kept allowing the lid to be raised by local districts – up, up, up.

An exhaustive – and exhausting – breakdown of the inaction and buck-passing is detailed in the McCleary decision itself.

It produced the system that the state’s Supreme Court deemed a failure of the state’s constitutional responsibility and one that produced deep inequities among school districts. The McCleary fix addressed this by shifting much more of the funding burden to the state and again putting a cap on local levies – at $1.50 per $1,000 in property value.

If we start raising that again, however sound the immediate need may seem, then it’s déjà vu all over again. And it will make it absolutely clear that the McCleary fix was no fix at all.