OLYMPIA – A major change in the way Washington raises taxes and pays for public schools barely cleared a major hurdle Wednesday but clearly faces a long road that includes weeks of negotiation and possibly voter approval in November.
The Republican-led majority pushed their One Washington education plan through the Senate on a 25-24 vote, despite objections from Democrats that it represents a major property tax increase for some state residents, would short-change some students and take away some control by local school districts.
Republicans countered that it provides fairer and more transparent funding, gives more attention to students who have special needs, are homeless or use English as a second language.
The plan now heads for negotiation with the Democratic-controlled House, which has a different plan that has yet to come to a vote.
Several efforts by Democrats to change policy wrapped up in the Senate proposal failed. Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, tried to remove a section that allows schools to use uncertified teachers if they are supervised by a certified one. That means a person would need higher certification to be a barber in Washington than to be a teacher, Billig said.
Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, the author of the proposal, said using professionals from other fields with “special skills” are being allowed to teach without a certificate in many other states. “This is not a crazy reform,” Braun said.
But state law already allows that on a limited basis with a school superintendent’s approval, Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, countered, but the bill seeks to remove that approval. “This is not a solution to the teacher shortage,” she said.
Efforts to remove that provision, and all other changes to education policy, failed on party line votes.
Senators argued whether students would get more money or less if the plan were to become law as is, but were clearly working from different sets of figures and different assumptions on the murky future of state school policy. School funding formulas are complicated, and vary widely among the state’s 295 local school districts. The amount local schools can collect through property taxes is scheduled to drop significantly next year, and different calculations treat the so-called “levy cliff” differently.
The Republican plan removes the school districts’ local levy authority in 2019, and replaces it with a statewide property tax levy of $1.80. That’s a significant decrease for some districts, particularly in the Spokane area and much of Eastern Washington, where property values are lower and districts ask voters to approve higher levies to raise enough money to supplement salaries and some other expenses that are considered basic education.
The state Supreme Court has said the state must pay for basic education, and Senate Republicans are proposing the change in property taxes, sometimes called a “levy swap” to comply with that order.
But the $1.80 is higher than some Western Washington school districts like Seattle, Bellevue and Mercer Island levy, which collect more money because property values are higher. And those property owners will pay higher taxes with the higher levy rate.
Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, said he supported the changes in tax policy, but the thing he liked best about the plan was it would have to be approved by voters in November. “The people will have the final say on what we do,” he said.
That will be true, but only if the referendum requirement survives upcoming negotiations among the Senate, House and governor.