Next Legislature needs to fix faulty school funding

Legislators must readjust state school-funding mechanisms as soon as possible.

It was always going to be ugly. The Washington Legislature’s first major effort to implement court-ordered statewide full funding for K-12 education has upset decades of local school levy arrangements, triggering intense union negotiations and teacher strikes throughout much of the state.

Ocean Beach and Naselle-Grays River Valley districts reached short-term compromises with their unions, avoiding delayed school starts and other turmoil. Everyone involved deserves praise for maturity and moderation. It’s clear, however, that these agreements in some ways kick the can down the road to a time when district budgets won’t suffice to cover future obligations.

With $2 billion in new state funding, voters may wonder what the heck is going on?

Legislators wrestled for years with how to address the McCleary decision by the state Supreme Court. Prompted by parents and teachers, the court ruled the lawmakers weren’t complying with the Washington State Constitution, which specifies that public schooling is a paramount state responsibility. This overturned the previous arrangement, in which local school districts asked voters and relied on maintenance and operations levies to make up for perennial shortfalls in state funding.

After years of procrastination and stalled negotiations between Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature, a statewide property tax increase was imposed to help fully fund schools. On the flip side, the ability of local districts to impose M&O levies was curtailed. Other steps were taken in an effort to balance state and local funding across the state’s many districts, which face dramatically different levels of property values. At the same time, union members who in many cases have seen wage freezes since the 2008 recession, looked to these state fixes to allow compensation to catch up with inflation.

To no one’s great surprise, this massive revamping of school financing misses the mark in various ways. The funding formula leaves many rural school districts gasping for money.

Ocean Beach School District, thanks to a mass of relatively high-value houses, is in better shape than most. Naselle-Grays River is more typical. With much lower assessed valuation, it and Pacific County’s other districts have always had to ask voters for substantially more tax per $1,000 in valuation than was true in Ocean Beach.

The 2019 Legislature, in which a major shift in power to Democrats is widely predicted, must fix this. It must do so with sensitivity to economic circumstances of rural areas outside the booming Puget Sound region. It has an opportunity to improve future prospects for students across the state, perhaps giving genuine stimulus to chronically under-performing counties. It must avoid unsustainable tax levels tat invite voter backlashes.

State school funding can and must be fixed. It shouldn’t be deferred to the 2020 legislative session.

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