By Neal Kirby
New education finance laws enacted by the Legislature leave schools with the highest poverty and highest minority counts with the lowest paid teachers and the lowest local levy funding, leaving doubts the state has met its constitutional mandate in Article IX:
“It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste or sex” and “the Legislature shall provide for a general and uniform system of public schools.”
The 2017 Legislature ended equal state salary funding for school employees. Some districts will now receive as much as 24 percent more than 200 other districts. Most King, Snohomish and Kitsap county schools and Edmonds schools will get 18 percent more than the base. Everett, Mukilteo and Snohomish get 24 percent more; Index, Granite Falls and Darrington get 12 percent more.
Local levy tax rates are capped at $1.50 per thousand assessed valuation or $2,500 per student. For districts too property-poor to collect $1,500 per student from that levy rate, including most of Snohomish County, the state provides a match to bring it up to $1,500. The richest districts in King County will collect 66 percent more than the poorest districts from the local levy. Except for Index, no Snohomish County school district will get $2,500.
The legislation is the result of years of lobbying by the most urban school districts and their legislators. It’s a great victory for urban schools but a denial of equity in education and taxation for those not receiving the same benefits.
The new laws codify institutional discrimination against the poorest students and largest minority group in the state. Institutional discrimination refers to discriminatory mistreatment of a group by institutions through unequal selection or bias, intentional or unintentional.
The new finance laws leave schools with the poorest students and largest minority counts far less capable of attracting and retaining teachers and other staff and unable to provide equal enrichment and extra-curricular programs for their students.
The salary plan contradicts research. The Compensation Technical Working Group (CTWG) commissioned by the state concluded in 2012 that state salary funding should be equal with 10 percent more from local levy funding to address local variances such as high housing cost or rural isolation.
CTWG considered extensive state research on the ability to attract and retain teachers.
The University of Washington’s Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession, in 2005 and 2006, showed rural areas had the highest teacher turnover rates and urban districts had the lowest. Schools in Central Washington from Oroville to Grandview have the highest teacher turnover and the highest minority counts, highest poverty counts, and lowest levies.
In “K-12 Finance and Student Performance Study,” the state’s Legislative Audit and Review Committee found students in the poorest districts had the lowest scores and their teachers had the least training and experience.
In “A Review of K-12 Regional Cost Issues,” the state’s Office of Financial Management found that while housing was most costly in urban areas, there was no evidence it led to greater teacher attrition in urban areas. Yet, the new state salary plan is based on housing costs.
The McCleary lawsuit dealt only with the “ample provision” clause in the constitution, and the justices ruled Nov. 15 the salary and levy plans address that. But McCleary didn’t address the “preference” on account of color and caste (i.e. income) clause or “uniform system of public schools” clause.
The state constitution calls for adequately and equitably funding a uniform system for all students, including equal opportunities to attract and retain quality teachers and equal enrichment for struggling students. A new lawsuit dealing with the gross inequities and institutional biases toward poor areas dominated by minority counts may be needed.
Neal Kirby is a member of the Centralia School District Board of Directors. He is also a former state representative.
Correction: An earlier version of this commentary gave an incorrect percentage for Edmonds for what it will receive above other districts for school employee salaries. Edmonds will receive about 18 percent more than most other districts.