Editorial: The work that remains for state’s ‘paramount duty’

With more funding secured for learning, the state needs to take a greater share in building schools.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Were it not for the Legislature’s progress in improving state funding of public education, Washington state teachers, students and parents might have joined the parade of educators and supporters flooding streets last week in Arizona and Colorado, and earlier in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, demanding better teacher pay and school funding support.

That’s not to imply that there isn’t work still to be done by lawmakers and state officials. And the state Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on whether lawmakers have indeed met their obligation under the McCleary lawsuit to increase state funding for K-12 schools and reduce past over-reliance on local school levies to provide significant support for basic education, specifically teacher and staff salaries.

In recent legislative sessions, lawmakers have increased education funding in the current two-year budget to $22.8 billion, with spending expected to reach $26.7 billion in the following budget that lawmakers will tackle next year, very nearly double what the state spent on K-12 education — $13.4 billion — in the 2011-13 budget.

“Even as the Legislature has added new resources to shore up ‘basic’ education, we are still a state that invests less in our schools than the national average,” said Chris Reykdal, the state’s schools chief.

With that in mind, Reykdal is hoping to hear from the public about its priorities for K-12 education investments.

The state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction is asking the public to take an online surveytinyurl.com/OSPIschoolsurvey — to provide guidance on education issues, including classroom size, after-school and summer programs, counseling and mental health, family engagement and outreach, school safety, racial disparities in learning and discipline and more. The survey, which will be used in drafting the agency’s budget request, will take responses until June 8. A second survey, offering a chance to prioritize those budget programs, is planned for mid-summer.

Having addressed financial support for the learning that goes on in the classrooms, one area that lawmakers and state officials now need to resolve is the financial support that builds the classrooms themselves. The OSPI survey does ask about funding for school facilities.

But much of this can’t be addressed in the agency’s budget and requires a broader debate about how school construction is funded and about the state’s tax system.

Schools and other facilities are built with taxpayer funds, with responsibility shared among the state and local school districts. But over the years, the state’s share of support for school construction has on average declined from about 66 percent in the mid-’80s to 50 percent in 1992 to 20 percent or less currently.

As with its past over-reliance on local levies for basic education, the state now is leaving local school districts with the heaviest share of responsibility for school construction. That’s a responsibility that’s further complicated by a state law that requires the bonds for construction earn 60 percent approval from local school district voters.

In the most recent bond measures in Snohomish County, Arlington School District’s $107.5 million bond measure to replace a middle school failed with about 56 percent approval, while Everett School District’s $330 million bond request for a fourth high school and other projects failed with 55 percent approval.

The bond failures typically result in increased costs for school building projects when they later win approval and increased costs as districts address overcrowding and aging facilities in the interim.

Voter sentiment regarding property taxes is at a low right now, in part because of the Legislature’s McCleary solution, a “levy swap” that increased the state’s share of property taxes in exchange for a cap on local levies that takes effect next year. The result was a temporary spike in property taxes for this year. Taking advantage of an unexpected increase in revenues, the Legislature voted to decrease the state’s share of property taxes by 30 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, but only for next year.

One proposal that would have provided more permanent relief as well as exempt more seniors, veterans and those with disabilities from property taxes, was legislation to buy down property taxes through a capital gains tax on the sale of investments. The bill received some interest but did not advance. It deserves further consideration, as do other reforms to one of the nation’s most regressive tax systems.

The state constitution considers the “ample provision for the education of all children,” the state’s paramount duty, and it’s what McCleary was based upon.

State lawmakers took their responsibility seriously in increasing support for K-12 education. Their next tasks are to make the same ample provision for the classrooms and facilities where learning takes place and to reform a tax system that is making that paramount duty difficult to fulfill.

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