There’s no easy fix for funding state’s schools

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 its 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 things such 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 being 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.

Tuesday morning, a group of superintendents and school finance officers huddled in Redmond to assess differing and evolving proposals sprouting in Olympia. Similar gatherings are occurring around the state and on the Capitol campus almost daily.

“We’re trying to figure out what they really mean,” said Everett schools Superintendent Gary Cohn, who was in Redmond.

While no one intends to harm students or the schools they attend, Cohn said there’s concern lawmakers will settle on a “collection of deals and bargains and compromises that creates an unintended consequence.”

“Our worry is that there won’t be a series of solutions that is adequate time-wise and that’s ample funding-wise to be able to maintain programs while the state takes its responsibility,” he said.

“It is very difficult for them to come up with a simple answer in a short period of time,” he said, “yet we don’t have a lot of time.”

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at Contact him at 360-352-8623; and on Twitter at @dospueblos.

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