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A Primer on Washington’s School Funding

Let’s untangle our state’s knotty school funding issues by starting with the basics



Hillary Shaw learns the issues and advocates for kids as a PTA officer.

PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON

Parents whose children are just entering preschool and kindergarten have every reason to be confused by education funding in the state of Washington. Since the time their little ones were in the womb, the battle for education funding has moved at warp speed.

But it’s important to know the details. Decisions made at the state level affect every aspect of education, from class size to teacher pay to property taxes.

Hillary Shaw is a mom of two who co-founded a PTA at her children’s school a few years ago. As a newly elected PTA officer, she attended legislative advocacy training. “It was eye opening, and I have been learning about the history of underfunded public schools and advocating for amply funded public schools ever since,” she says. While it can be overwhelming, she says learning the issues and advocating for kids is rewarding.

To help you get up to speed, we’re providing a primer on education funding, why it matters, and what happens next.

Background

Washington state’s constitution says that making “ample provision” to educate all kids in the state is its “paramount duty.” But there are no set definitions for “ample” funding. State property taxes have historically funded basic public education, and then local property taxes are layered on top to fund “extras” like music, extracurricular activities, or a school nurse, says former state legislator Jessyn Farrell.

“But over time, there have been multiple state funding crises where the state property tax didn’t meet the need,” she says, so local districts were allowed to increase their taxation authority. Decades of this led to vastly uneven funding from one district to the next, Farrell says. Kids in districts where voters were more likely to support local tax increases tended to get more funding.

A group of families challenged the state in court. In 2012, the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously in what’s known as the McCleary decision, ordering the state to fully fund education by 2017–18 and create a plan for a more equitable funding method. The full comments from the Supreme Court decision can be read here: courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/843627.opn.pdf

Funding plans

Each year, the legislature tries to solve the funding issue. And each year, the Supreme Court says they simply haven’t done enough. Some of those tensions bubbled over into Seattle School District negotiations: in 2015 teachers went on strike for five days to fight for a number of contract issues, including teacher pay, special education funding, and time for recess.

“Multiple billions of dollars have been put into the system over the past four or five years,” says Sen. David Frockt (D-Seattle), a longtime advocate for education funding and parent to two Seattle Public School students. The initial infusions of cash were targeted to all-day kindergarten, lower class sizes, and special education funding, he says. “But there was certainly a question of whether the funding model was sustainable” because it still relied heavily on district-by-district local taxes.

This past session, the legislature passed both a funding package paid for by state property taxes and a plan to reduce the future reliance on local property taxes. The plan calls for an increase to statewide property tax—from $1.89 to $2.70 per $1,000 of assessed value. The increased revenue would go toward education. But because of the way the plan is structured, some taxpayers may end up paying less overall in state and local property taxes while others will pay more. In turn, some school districts will see a benefit while others will see slightly reduced funding.

“There are still structural problems. I don’t believe it’s sustainable” Frockt says, because some taxpayers in his district, for example, will end up paying higher taxes but will not see school funding increase as a result.

Farrell shares Frockt’s opinion that the new plan is unsustainable. “It means that in the Puget Sound, we’re paying a lot of money for hardly anything more in terms of services. That, to me, is the problem,” she says.

The Supreme Court will ultimately decide.

What’s next?     

The Supreme Court is currently considering whether the legislature’s newest plan meets the requirements laid out in the Constitution. The court could issue a decision sometime this fall. If they determine that the state still hasn’t provided ample funding and a plan, it will be back to the drawing board for lawmakers.

What can you do?

“I cannot underscore enough the importance of parents being engaged in whatever capacity they can muster,” Shaw says. “I testified in Olympia several times last session. … I heard from various legislators, aides and lobbyists that the constant physical and virtual presence of parents and teachers was highly effective.”

A virtual presence may be the most achievable for many parents. This can start with following on social media groups like the funding advocacy organization Washington’s Paramount Duty or the community-building group Soup for Teachers to learn more about the issue and join the conversation. These groups post information about school funding history in Seattle as well as updates on how and when to contact your legislator.

The next step: “Join the local PTA,” Frockt says. “I cannot begin to tell you how effective they are. … There are different levels of involvement,” from writing letters to testifying at legislative hearings, he says, and each is important.

Shaw’s last tip for parent-advocates: “Follow the #waleg hashtag on Twitter.” That stands for Washington Legislature, and keeping up with those posts can give you access to up-to-the-minute reporting.

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