Adequately funding Washington education? Just add taxes

Last week's meeting of the state education task force opened the door to real discussion about how to adequately fund Washington schools.
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Students at the 2012 Washington Green Schools summit.

Last week's meeting of the state education task force opened the door to real discussion about how to adequately fund Washington schools.

In last January's McCleary decision, the Supreme Court directed the Legislature to meet its constitutional duty to amply fund K-12 education by 2018. Although 6 years would seem to be more than enough time, the challenges of meeting the deadline were clearly evident last week at a meeting of the panel charged with finding the revenues.

For the first time, the realities of partisanship became clear at the November 20 meeting of the Joint Task Force on Education Funding. Halfway through the meeting, the four Democratic legislative members of the body called for a private caucus. Heretofore, meetings have been conducted in a non-partisan fashion.

After a 30 minute break, they returned with a number of suggested changes to the three “strawman” budget proposals for basic education enhancements and funding sources that had been developed by task force chair Jeff Vincent and vice-chair Susan Enfield. Vincent, CEO of Laird Norton Company, and Enfield, Highline School’s Superintendent, are gubernatorial appointees to the task force.

Vincent and Enfield had recommended, as a starting point for discussion, increasing the amount of the state property tax levy, which is statutorily dedicated to the support of public schools. The proposed increase would raise the rate from the current $2.23 for each $1000 of fair market value to the legal $3.60 maximum. 

Two of the proposals would involve a levy “swap,” with the increased state property tax levy replacing $1.1 billion in local maintenance and operation levies across 295 school districts.

Their proposals suggested that modest amounts of revenue will result from further budget reductions in two areas: health & human services and in general government & natural resources. Details for these seemingly arbitrary reductions — what programs would be cut — were not provided. It was also assumed that savings would be realized from the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. These sources together, Enfield and Vincent projected, would produce $200 million per biennium.

They also proposed that two temporary taxes — the excise tax on beer and the B&O surtax on some services — be made permanent, that the sales tax be extended to some consumer services, and a new state 5 percent tax be added to the price of event admission tickets. If enacted, revenues for education from these sources in the next biennium would total $935 million. 

The revenues and savings recommendations were advanced in the context of the next three general fund budgets, and assumed that these future budgets would maintain other program funding at current levels. It did not include any further cuts to higher education or to programs that are not currently in the basic education category such as early learning.

The Democrats had concerns on several fronts. Senator Lisa Brown, the Senate’s outgoing majority leader questioned the “practicality” of the levy swap. Both Brown and Representative Pat Sullivan pointed out that the levy increase itself is problematic, given that year-to-year increases are currently limited to 1 percent. Sullivan also suggested that tax loopholes and exemptions should be examined, since ending some will lessen the need for new revenue.

On the spending side, Democrats were concerned that school administrative and support staff (secretaries, teaching assistants, custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and others) salaries are insufficient to compete in the labor marketplace for highly qualified applicants and to retain the best current employees. They asked for more information that would expand on a report, circulated at the meeting, that outlined potential areas for enhancement of these salaries. 

Representative Marcie Maxwell suggested that an “accountability” line should be included in the budget to provide the means for determining how well public resources are being used to improve educational outcomes.

Another suggested change from the Democrats would move student transportation spending to the state’s transportation budget, allowing the general fund budget to focus on class size, school operating costs — including books, full-day kindergarten, reduced class size and increased high school class hours — and any additional education program enhancements. Transportation, at a biennial cost of about $230 million, is a relatively small part of the educational budget and there has been some talk that a transportation funding package might go to state voters next year.

All of these suggestions and more will be on the table when the task force next convenes on December 5.

Also under review will be proposals from other stakeholders. Chair Vincent issued a direct invitation to business, labor and education organizations to submit ideas for consideration. A show of audience hands indicated that at least five groups intend to comply by noon on November 30. Deadlines are growing tight, since the task force must report to the legislature by December 31, and just two more meetings have been scheduled.

Since we, as taxpayers and citizens concerned about the education of future generations, are all stakeholders in this effort, our ideas, either in the form of public testimony at task force meetings or direct communication with members, should also help shape their report.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Dick Nelson

Dick Nelson is a former Washington State legislator. He currently contributes to the public debate on state and local fiscal issues through research and commentary. As when he was in the legislature, he prefers the Democratic Party.