Republican state senators propose school funding plan

OLYMPIA — Republican senators on Friday proposed a radical change in the way Washington’s public schools are funded and they want to put it on the ballot to let voters have the final say.

At the heart of the plan is a new statewide property tax for schools starting next year followed by full elimination of maintenance-and-operation levies collected by school districts in 2019. That would mean property owners can expect to pay more in taxes in 2018 but in the ensuing year many of them would see their bill shrink, senators said.

The complex proposal also calls for the state to spend no less than $12,500 per student, to boost starting pay for new teachers to $45,000 and to offer annual bonuses of as much as $50,000 to top classroom instructors. There’s also a housing allowance of up to $10,000 for employees working in districts where the assessed value of homes exceeds the statewide average.

And this proposal also would repeal provisions of the voter-approved class size reduction measure — Initiative 1351 — as well as ban teacher strikes and exempt districts from complying with some state laws if their students are meeting or exceeding certain academic performance targets.

“We propose all of this as a referendum because this is an enormous change in the way we tax our citizens” and fund the schools, said Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, who is the lead budget writer in the Senate. “This is quite naturally something we would ask our voters.”

The shifting of where the state gets its revenues for the public school system is modeled after an approach used in the state of Massachusetts, Braun said.

Republican senators would not tinker with the existing Common School levy collected by the state. Rather, they suggest creating a new “local effort” levy of $1.80 per $1,000 of assessed value that would generate an estimated $2 billion a year. The state would collect the money and redistribute it to school districts using a new per-pupil funding model, Braun said.

As envisioned, these dollars are intended to replace money now generated by local levies. It won’t be enough as school districts collectively earn $2.4 billion from their levies. Republicans plan to tap the state’s general fund to make up the difference.

In addition, Republicans are proposing to eliminate levy equalization payments, which will remove restrictions on nearly $400 million a year now sent to schools.

“We are talking about radically changing, historically changing the way we fund education,” Braun said. “It’s a leveling of the field, a fair, clean way to do what we had to do to fix this problem, which is reform the levy system, but also make sure we recognize that different areas have different ability to fund education.”

Until Friday, Republican lawmakers had issued only a set of guiding principles on funding public schools and no specific approach. Now there are plans on the table from the majority party in the Senate, the House and Gov. Jay Inslee. That clears the way for serious conversations on the session’s primary issue — fully funding schools as required by the McCleary decision of the Supreme Court.

“What I am hearing is there are points that we might actually be able to work with,” said Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip. “So let’s talk and come to common ground.”

“There’s some serious concerns with that proposal. That said, it is a place to start negotiating,” said Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Islands, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

It will be a “very difficult sell” to voters in many Puget Sound districts because they will see their tax dollars taken and sent to schools in other parts of the state rather than their own, he said.

Braun said Republicans worked hard to make sure they didn’t “stick it to Seattle.” Any increases, he said, will be moderate throughout the state, noting that even in Seattle it shouldn’t be more than $250 a year for owners of a $500,000 home.

Another significant change put forth by Republicans is the repeal of the prototypical school model used for allocating state dollars and replacing it with a statewide per-pupil funding system.

School districts would get a base amount of $10,000 per student plus potential increases of $2,000 to $5,000 per student from low-income families, $7,500 for each special-needs student, $1,500 for each homeless student and $1,000 for each student whose first language isn’t English.

“We believe it will be very easy to explain to parents this is how your child is funded. It is much, much easier than we have now,” Braun said.

Republicans also contend their model will eliminate inequities in student funding between districts. For example, their analysis shows Bellevue School District would see the amount of state dollars it receives for each student climb from $13,604 to $14,223 while in the Toppenish School District it would rise from $11,709 to $14,791.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal on Friday said the proposal shows Republicans “are serious about solving the funding problem” and understand additional resources will be needed.

Meanwhile, Democrats’ in the House and Senate have pushed a proposal to put $1.6 billion more into educator salaries in the 2017-19 budget and another $5.7 billion for wage hikes, training and basic education programs in the following budget.

Their proposal also embraced a boost in starting pay for new teachers to $45,500 a year, an average salary of $71,000 for all teachers and a modest change in local levy rules. They are considering a slew of new or higher taxes to cover the cost but have not identified any particular option.

Inslee is proposing to put $2.7 billion into salaries alone in the next budget. Overall, he’s called for hiking education spending by roughly $4.4 billion. He’d pay for that with new taxes on carbon emissions and capital gains and a higher tax rate on service businesses.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dospueblos

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