While much attention is focused on the legislature’s state capital gains income tax, a much more significant tax increase to bail out school districts – Senate Bill 5313 – has been advancing under the radar.
Under the watchful eye of the Washington state Supreme Court, state funding for schools has increased more than 60 percent since the McCleary education funding ruling in 2012. According to the SchoolDataProject.com, per-student spending is now at $15,032, up from $9,816 when McCleary was issued. In the Spokane school district, per-student spending has grown from $10,358 to $15,606.
Despite this fact, many school districts are on the verge of going broke and cutting education services. The Spokane school district is showing an operating deficit of $12.6 million this year and expects to reduce services to families. The district’s ending fund balance will be $125 million negative within three years.
How does this happen?
First, let’s recap the flaws of the funding system that led the Supreme Court to conclude the state was not properly funding education in both McCleary and in the similar, earlier 1977 Doran decision.
The state has a constitutional obligation to fund the costs of basic education without relying on local levies for basic expenses like educator wages. In 1977 and again in 2011, plaintiffs argued that the widespread practice of using local levies to supplement teacher salaries was proof of insufficient state funding.
The legislative solution approved by the governor and the court did four things.
For starters, it increased the state property tax by about 80 to 90 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.
Secondly, it increased the state-allocated per-teacher salary by 17 percent from $55,705 to $65,216. Areas with higher living costs received as much as 24 percent more, or over $80,000 average per teacher.
Third, it ended districts’ ability to use levy funds to increase teachers’ wages above the state-funded salary. Most districts have previously agreed to contracts providing levy funds to enhance wages by 3 to 37 percent. The new state funding for teacher wages was supposed to offset the reduction in levy-funded wages.
Fourth, it lowered the maximum property tax rate that could be set by local school levies since they were no longer to be used for educator pay.
Unfortunately, this solution was intolerable for the union executives at the Washington Education Association (WEA). They prefer to retain the ability to push for wage increases at both the state and local level. The union wasn’t willing to let districts comply with the law, ending this unsustainable and unfair practice.
WEA deceived teachers and the public about how state funding was supposed to be used and pushed districts to cannibalize levy-funded school services for families to feed the union’s wage increase demands.
WEA agitated for hard bargaining that ignored the law capping raises and prohibiting levy money from being used for wage enhancements. The union instigated multiple strikes when some districts resisted.
Elected school boards were intimidated or were comprised of union-supporters and gave in to WEA’s extraordinary wage demands. WEA even posted a war map, crowing about raises ranging from 12 percent to 34 percent. In the Spokane school district, WEA notes that educators received a 14.3 percent pay raise after threats of a strike to follow on raises awarded after a strike threat in 2015. The average teacher wage awarded at the bargaining table is reported to be $80,878, even though the state allocation for Spokane teacher salaries is $69,128.
Small wonder that now many districts are projected to reach insolvency within four years. This is to be expected when the state provides funds for educator wages averaging $65,000 to $80,000 but districts agree to contracts obligating them to pay more in wages than the state provided for.
The problem isn’t the very large increase in revenue and state property taxes. The problem is the union machinations resulting in even larger payroll obligations, and the remedy isn’t a return to the unfair system created by rampant local levy taxes for wage increases.
Instead, school boards should stand against the WEA’s special interest and fight for services now being cut.
School districts, the legislature, the courts and the state auditor can enforce statutory limitations on collective bargaining that created these problems. Bailing out districts with a local property tax increase will only reproduce to the failed system the court and legislature already addressed with the policies implementing the McCleary ruling.
Jami Lund is an elected Centralia School Board director and an education policy analyst for the Freedom Foundation.
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