Don’t make inequities worse

Given the worst budget outlook in decades, public education funding will take a hit when lawmakers convene in Olympia next month. A temptation sure to present itself, and which must be resisted out of fundamental fairness, will be to pass more of the burden to local school districts — a course that would hit the poorest districts the hardest.

Funding inequities are already acute in Washington, largely because the state isn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to fully fund basic education. (Yes, challenges are working their way through the courts.)

Districts make up the difference with levies — voter-approved property taxes that were intended to provide tools and opportunities beyond the basics, but have become an essential part of school funding. This gives property-rich districts like Seattle and Bellevue, and their students, an unfair advantage because they’re able to raise the same amount of money at a much lower burden on their taxpayers — less than half the rate charged by most districts in Snohomish County, for example.

Not only that, but Seattle, Bellevue and several other districts are allowed to collect more levy money than most because of political compromises made over the years in Olympia.

The state makes up about one-fourth of the inequity through levy equalization funds, which would be eliminated under Gov. Chris Gregoire’s initial supplemental budget proposal. (Every district in Snohomish County except Edmonds, Mukilteo and Index receive levy equalization dollars.) Gregoire has said she aims to restore that funding in a second budget proposal in January, one that will include increased revenues. Failing to do so would put the state in even clearer default of its constitutional obligation to educate all of the state’s children.

Now, to make things even worse, it appears a proposal to lift the cap on the amount of levy money local districts can raise is in the offing. Superintendents in Snohomish and other Northwest Washington counties went on record against it last week, saying it “would worsen the disparity between property-rich and property-poor districts.”

Would it ever. Seattle and Bellevue, with their bigger tax bases and corresponding lower tax rates, could raise more money with relatively little pain. The price would be far higher for families in Snohomish County districts.

Marysville Superintendent Larry Nyland draws an apt analogy: “It’s as if Seattle paid a 2 cent sales tax, Marysville a 5 cent sales tax and Pasco an 8 cent sales tax. And that is with levy equalization.”

Unequal funding means unequal opportunities, and is at odds with the mission of public education. In the coming session, lawmakers mustn’t do anything to make an already bad situation worse.

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