The way Washington pays for public schools is illegal.
But there’s no simple fix, and school leaders worry that state lawmakers are considering potential remedies that might not be better and, in some cases, could be worse.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers must meet a deadline to figure it out or face the wrath of the state Supreme Court.
Back in 2012, the court ruled in the McCleary case that the state is in violation of the constitution for not amply funding the public school system. It gave them until the 2017-18 school year to set things right.
Last year, justices found lawmakers in contempt for not producing a plan to meet the deadline. They delayed sanctions to give lawmakers another year to write one.
Legislators are on track to provide the additional money required by McCleary to cover such things as materials, supplies, operating costs, buses and all-day kindergarten.
Now comes the hard part. They must unravel a half-century of legislative decisions on which the financing of public schools has built — illegally, it turns out.
Those decisions led districts to become too dependent on local tax levies to make up for the lack of state dollars to run schools and pay teachers. Fixing this isn’t as easy as passing a couple of laws and calling it good.
Consider the players involved and the dynamics of the political conversation.
There’s the Legislature. Its 147 members are hurtling toward a second special session due to disagreements over a new state budget, and now they’re under pressure to agree on a complete makeover of the rules for school financing and teacher salaries.
And there are the school districts. These are essentially 295 independently owned and operated enterprises. Each has different management teams, supported by different investors (taxpayers), and their workforce is mostly unionized.
Multiple approaches are getting floated as part of a potential grand bargain among lawmakers.
There’s an idea of a levy swap. This would raise the state’s property tax rate and lower districts’ property tax levies. This is envisioned as a dollar-for-dollar trade.
Another idea would create a capital-gains tax on Washington’s wealthiest 7,500 residents to generate a pot of money that could displace some of those local levy dollars.
Complicating matters is an absence of trust in lawmakers to deliver on pledges they make. Not only are there doubts among the education establishment, many lawmakers worry about breaking promises and winding up in front of the Supreme Court again.