Good public schools won’t solve all the problems we face — but public education is a crucial cornerstone for creating hope and opportunity for students, and for building stronger communities and a more prosperous, equitable economy.
Ensuring every child has equal access to this ladder of opportunity, from pre-school through higher education, is the most important work of our state government. And if our elected leaders aren’t up to that task, then it falls to us, the voters, to make sure it happens.
One of the most encouraging developments during the recent five-day strike by Seattle educators was the outpouring of support from parents, students and local businesses. People understood why teachers were striking — not only for paying professionals what they are worth, but also to ensure adequate recess time for kids to run and play and breathe fresh air; to reduce stressful and unreliable testing; to make sure there are enough counselors, nurses and other workers essential to educational progress.
Seattle teachers achieved much of what they were looking for — but unless state elected officials pass future budgets that fully fund public education, Seattle residents — and those in other districts — will find themselves back in the same situation, scrambling for contested funds and watching their compensation decrease.
In fact, the average teacher salary in Seattle fell by $4,470 just from the 2013-14 school year to the 2014-15 school year. This year average teacher compensation was $8,728 less than it was in 2010. All told, teachers lost $22,600 over the past six years compared to their salaries in 2009. And while they got an increase in their contract, they will still be $4,000 short of what they earned in 2009, doing the same work.
This is no way to attract and retain a strong cadre of professionals who will dedicate their lives to helping kids reach their potential. Even if legislators don’t seem to recognize this, parents do. That‘s why Seattle parents started a new Facebook group, “Washington’s Paramount Duty,” which has garnered thousands of friends within a week.
When we talk about sustainable, predictable and ample revenue to fully fund basic education and tackle structural funding inequities, there is one simple, elegant and robust solution: a progressive income tax. Yes, in 2010 voters in Snohomish County clobbered an income tax on the wealthy, by a margin of 2 to 1. But in Seattle, more than 63 percent of the voters supported this tax. Since then we have seen the accelerating escalation of income and wealth to the top 1 percent, and the stagnation of earnings for the rest of us. Without an income tax, we recoup none of that money from the top 1 percent to fund our schools.
A progressive income tax, with a $50,000 exemption, would raise $7.5 billion a year. That would be sufficient to fund K-12 education as the Supreme Court has ordered, reduce tuition by half at our public universities and colleges, fully fund early learning, including the compensation of early learning teachers, and enable the Legislature to lower the sales tax rate by 1.5 cents on every dollar. It would shift taxes from working class families to high income individuals. It would bring equity to both education and taxation.
Our state legislators should vote a progressive income tax into law. That really is the only way to end the undermining of public schools. But if they just dawdle around the edges, shrugging their shoulders at the fines and contempt findings leveled on them by the Supreme Court, voters will need to take matters into their own hands. Our kids can’t wait.
John Burbank is the executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, www.eoionline.org. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.