Our Legislature and Our Schools: The 2017 Legislature is faced with difficult decisions as it tries to comply with the state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary ruling ordering the state to fully fund basic public school education, but there are several points of agreement between the Republican and Democratic positions.
Both parties recognize the importance of meeting the court’s 2018 deadline to fully fund basic education. There is agreement regarding the need to provide competitive salaries for Washington’s 62,000 teachers and the requirement to reduce or eliminate reliance upon local tax levies.
In ratings of the 50 states based upon per student investment in education, Washington ranks in the lowest quartile and ranks even lower in teacher-student class size ratios. Full funding for education means more than teacher salaries. It also includes all school-worker salaries, programs for students with special needs, curriculum materials, transportation costs and building maintenance.
Currently, approximately 20 percent of the average teacher’s salary is funded by local levies. Much of this compensation is in the form of TRI pay. TRI stands for Time, Responsibility and Incentive and covers work done beyond the scope of the classroom contract, such as before and after school tutoring, supervising student programs, mentoring, serving as a department chair or on committees focusing on educational goals. Incentive pay also encourages teachers to continue postgraduate studies. Teachers are required to continue earning college-level credits to maintain their certification and their jobs. They receive partial compensation for the personal expense of continuing education through the state approved salary scale.
Each political party has proposed cost projections for funding schools over a four-year period. A comparison between the two four-year estimates shows a difference of $2 billion, with an annual difference of $525 million. The Republican plan (Senate Bill 5607) calls for $5.3 billion, with an annual education budget of $1.325 billion. The Democratic plan (House Bill 1843) calls for $7.3 billion or $185 billion annually. Both plans are close on recommended entry-level teacher salaries—$45,000 to $45,500. Both political parties agree that regional property values must be considered in developing an equitable per-student funding formula.
The major point of disagreement is in the way citizen tax obligations will be affected. On Feb. 1, SB 5607 was passed out of the Senate by a 25-24 vote and is currently under consideration by the House Appropriations Committee.
SB 5607 calls for a “tax swap” that will eliminate or reduce local district educational levies. Local levies will be replaced by a statewide-equalized property tax rate of $1.80 per $1,000 assessed value (AV). The Republican-led Majority Collation Caucus describes the tax swap as a tax savings for most property owners. However, levy assessments for education may or may not lead to a savings to property owners living in areas where local school levies are below $1.80 per $1,000 AV. The levy rate applicable to the Peninsula School District has been $1.19 per $1,000 AV for several years. The number used by the Majority Coalition Caucus is $2.30 per $1,000 AV, but that amount includes all levy support—fire district, public utilities, port district, parks districts, etc., not just schools.
In addition, the nonpartisan analysts who prepared the calculations used in the Republican plan recently confirmed their data contained serious flaws regarding the total amount schools would receive.
Even if both houses act to approve full-funding for basic education as defined in SB 5607, the problem of resolving McCleary might remain since SB 5607 includes a provision requiring a public vote. Should the tax-swap and other provisions not win public support, fully funded basic education will remain a problem for our future.
For more information on SB 5607 or HB 1843, go to http://www.leg.wa.gov.