Editorial: Reason for hope on school funding agreement

By The Herald Editorial Board

That the Legislature was able to pull many of the state’s 295 school districts away from the “levy cliff” — and do so with substantial bipartisan agreement — should provide some confidence that lawmakers can reach a deal this year that resolves the state Supreme Court mandate to fix education funding.

Following a 48-1 vote in the Senate, the House on Thursday voted 87-10 to delay a rollback of school district levy rate limits until 2019, rather than the current 2018 deadline. The bill now goes to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature.

The Legislature had set the earlier deadline with the intention that it would have been further along in resolving the school funding crisis, but as the deadline approached, many school districts faced the loss of millions of dollars in funding and would have had to begin preparing for cuts, including notifying teachers and other staff of potential layoffs for the 2017-18 school year.

Everett School District faced a loss of $3.8 million for the next school year, while the Edmonds School District could have seen its revenue reduced by $7 million for that school year.

The school districts have some breathing room now, but that doesn’t lift the obligation that lawmakers this year find a way out from under the court’s 2012 McCleary decision, requiring them to fix funding inequities among school districts and end school districts’ reliance on local property tax levies to fund basic education for the state’s 1.1 million students, the state’s paramount duty.

Republicans in the Senate and Democrats in the House have presented their plans, as did Gov. Inslee before the start of the year. And “four corners” negotiations started this week among the party’s caucuses in both houses. There’s some distance to travel to find agreement on how much, if any, additional spending is needed and what taxes might fund it.

But, as representatives with the Campaign for Student Success, noted last week during a meeting with The Herald Editorial Board, there’s a great deal on which lawmakers already agree.

The Campaign for Student Success is a coalition of about 30 organizations, representing a broad range of advocacy and minority groups across the political spectrum, including the League of Education Voters, Statewide Poverty Action Network, Stand for Children Washington, Equity in Education Coalition and others.

The campaign is encouraging legislators not just to amply fund education but to make changes that address inequities among poor- and well-funded districts, close achievement gaps among and within schools and improve transparency and accountability.

“How we spend that money is as important as the investments we make,” said Chris Korsmo, with the League of Education Voters.

Korsmo and Dave Powell, with Stand for Children, said that in their discussions with lawmakers they are seeing basic agreement on overall goals and reforms, many of which line up with the campaign’s concerns.

Among areas of general agreement are:

The necessity to end the need for local school districts to use property tax levies to provide a significant portion of salaries for teachers and other staff;

Equitable funding for districts and schools;

More opportunities for career and technical education for high school students;

Increased funding for students most in need, including English language learners, special needs students, foster children and homeless students and those living in high-poverty areas; and

Improved compensation for starting teachers and pay that attracts and helps retain educators in hard-to-staff subjects, schools and communities.

There are differences among lawmakers and parties as to how some of those goals are reached. One example: The House plan seeks to retain the current method that allocates funding by building, while the Senate is seeking a per-student model. That’s the method recommended by the Washington Roundtable and the Campaign for Student Success, because it can make it easier to see that funding is being provided equitably.

Still, “there’s a lot of alignment on the core pieces,” Powell said.

With general agreement on those goals, what’s left is to set a price tag to it and agree on how to pay for it.

Lawmakers have 1.1 million good reasons to get there.

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