Teacher pay is basic education

With a transportation package provided a good start, the Legislature soon can begin to turn its attention to education and satisfy the state’s residents and its Supreme Court that it will fulfill its “paramount duty” under the constitution and fully fund basic K-12 education.

And just as compromise was necessary in crafting the Senate’s transportation package, with Republicans warming to a gas tax increase and Democrats agreeing to live with labor and sales tax reforms, similar compromise will be necessary regarding education funding.

Simply put, it’s not going to come without a tax increase or a new tax, and that’s regardless of how legislators address I-1351’s requirement to reduce class sizes.

If the Legislature is going to satisfy the deadlines of the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision and its own legislation, it will have to find funding to address pay and benefits for teachers and other school employees, the most basic part of basic education. The governor’s $2.3 billion education budget, in its attempt to meet those deadlines, outlined spending for maintenance, supplies and operating costs, reducing K-3 class sizes and funding all-day kindergarten for all students, but it doesn’t adequately address the funding necessary for teacher pay.

For decades, individual school districts have made up for the state’s pullback on supporting basic education by going to their own voters and using levy money to make up the difference between what the state provided for salaries and benefits and what districts contractually agreed to pay teachers. Data from the Washington Association of School Administrators shows that during the 1987-88 school year, the state paid an average of 99 percent of each teacher’s salary. That has steadily decreased to a statewide average in the 2012-13 school year of 77 percent. The share is higher for several school districts in Snohomish County. For Everett and Monroe school districts about 85 cents of every levy dollar in 2013-14 went to salaries and benefits for teachers, administrators and support staff.

There have been past attempts to cap the reliance on levy funds, but lawmakers have for too long allowed local districts, at least those with voter support, to make up the difference between what the state would pay and what teachers were paid.

By 2018, the same deadline as the court’s McCleary decision, the percentage of levy money that can make up a district’s total budget will be reduced from the current 28 percent to 24 percent, limiting each district’s ability to make up for what the state doesn’t provide. The funding crunch for school districts, ironically, could deepen as both the McClearly decision and I-1351 are implemented, increasing the employees that districts are left liable to pay.

All the more reason for legislators to ensure the state is providing for the bulk of school employee compensation.

Tomorrow, more on how the state might begin to address that duty.

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