Washington Senate approves education funding plan

By Rachel La Corte / Associated Press

OLYMPIA — The Senate on Wednesday narrowly approved an education funding plan that seeks to replace local school levies with a statewide uniform rate earmarked for schools.

The chamber passed the Republican proposal on a 25-24 vote, with no Democrat — except one who caucuses with Republicans to give them their majority — voting in favor of it. The measure now heads to the Democratic-controlled House, where it will be negotiated as both sides continue to work toward a compromise.

Lawmakers are working to comply with a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling that they must fully fund the state’s basic education system. Lawmakers have already put more than $2 billion toward the issue since the ruling, but the biggest piece remaining of the court order is figuring out how much the state must provide for teacher salaries. School districts currently pay a big chunk of those salaries with local property-tax levies.

“This proposal recognizes that every student in our state has value, that every child has unique needs,” said Republican Sen. John Braun, the key budget writer in the Senate. He said that that equal property taxes around the state will be “reliable and dependable for our students.”

The GOP-proposed levy changes are expected to bring in $2 billion a year for education, and the state would also spend an additional $700 million per year to backfill to ensure that each school district has a minimum of $12,500 per student, with higher per-student funding to address issues like poverty or special education.

Republicans say they can pay for the backfill with existing resources. The plan would raise the local school levy in some places, like Seattle, and decrease it in others, something Democrats have argued is unfair.

“Does this legislation help all of our students in Washington state?” asked Democratic Sen. Kevin Ranker. “Unfortunately, the answer to that question is no.”

The proposal also delays a deadline for a reduction in the amount of money school districts can collect through local property tax levies. The whole plan put forth by Republicans, except for the levy deadline delay bill, would be subject to a referendum by voters in November.

Democrats introduced six amendments that were all rejected, including one that would have stripped the whole bill except for the section related to the levy deadline delay.

The Republican plan allows school districts to enact new local levies at lower rates by 2020 if they get approval from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. However those additional levies could only be spent on programs that are education enhancements that are not considered “basic education.”

Under the measure, the new statewide property tax rate would be transitioned in starting next year, but would not be fully implemented until Jan. 1, 2019.

Democrats have estimated that the state will need to spend more than $7 billion over the next four years on schools. While Democrats haven’t offered specifics on how to pay for it, they have noted several potential sources of revenue, including closure of tax exemptions, changes to the state property and business and occupation taxes and a new capital gains tax. But they don’t seek to make significant reductions to the local levy system.

The state Supreme Court has said that the state has until Sept. 1, 2018, to fully fund education, but that the details of how to do that — as well as how lawmakers will pay for it — must be in place before the Legislature adjourns this year.

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