While the legislature’s proposed education funding plan includes a significant increase in funding for our public schools, it falls well short of what is required by the courts and the constitution.
This deal runs a serious risk of failing to meet those requirements, failing to meet the pressing needs in classrooms across the state, and relies on unstable funding sources. If this deal passes, it may not mean the end of the McCleary case – this year, this decade, or this generation.
In 2016 Washington’s Paramount Duty estimated the cost of fully funding public education – specifically, the basic education promised by the legislature in 2009 in bills ESSB 2261 and 2776 – to be about $8 billion a biennium. Legal counsel for the McCleary plaintiffs estimated the sum was $10 billion a biennium, with at least $5.6 billion needed just for the next school year alone in order to meet requirements for materials and operations, teacher salaries, and smaller class sizes.
The deal legislators reached this week would provide an extra $7.3 billion over the next four years. This is less than half the money required to fulfill the constitutional and court-enforced right to a fully and amply funded education.
This deal also undermines the voter-approved initiative to reduce class sizes, providing that smaller class sizes would only become part of a basic education requirement if the legislature chooses to fund it. This is circular logic, and flies in the face of evidence and common sense that students learn better and have all their needs met when teachers can provide more attention to them in a classroom with fewer students.
We have already heard from parents and teachers across the state who are concerned that the sweeping changes to teacher pay would make it even more difficult to attract and retain good teachers in our schools. Capping teacher pay at $90,000, as well as the elimination of the “staff mix” model and limits on bargaining, combine to limit the ability of teachers to make a living and remain as residents of our own communities.
The McCleary case was never about reforms to the way teachers are paid. We see no reason for these risky changes to be made, certainly not with so much haste and so little public scrutiny.
We are also troubled by the methods used to pay for this half measure. The Supreme Court held that education funding must be regular and dependable. A property tax increase does not meet that standard, especially when the legislature maintains a 1% cap in future years on property taxes. This has the effect of eroding the property tax revenues that go to schools, meaning it’s no longer regular or dependable.
The legislature’s decision to limit local levies is another risky move. If the legislature fails to adequately fund basic education, or if districts’ costs rise above what legislators are willing to pay, those districts will be facing significant cuts, undermining the intent of the McCleary decision.
More importantly, using the property tax to fund schools is regressive and hurts the poor and the working families for whom a public education is particularly important. Many families will be unable to pay these costs, especially at a time when housing costs in many Washington cities are rising fast.
Washington State is home to some of the world’s richest individuals – and yet we have the most regressive tax system in the United States. The legislature’s decision to make poor people pay without asking the rich or big businesses to pay more is unconscionable, particularly when the same budget deal opens millions in new tax breaks for business.
We understand that legislators are worried about a government shutdown. We are too. On the other hand, it is hard to believe that avoiding a shutdown now is worth the price of continuing to underfund our schools and make poor people pay more in housing costs for years to come.
Students across Washington State are asked to attend schools that don’t have heat in the winter, that don’t have new textbooks, that don’t have a full-time nurse on duty, that don’t have librarians or new books, or counselors to help guide them to college or a career. It’s not clear that this deal will fully address these and other urgent needs, particularly since there are no provisions for capital expenditures in this budget. We urge the legislature to urgently address capital requirements for schools by passing a bill that provides the $2 billion necessary to ensure children across Washington attend schools that are safe, secure and have the capacity to accommodate the lower class sizes that voters have voted for and that we know provide a better learning environment for all students.
Legislators may be exhausted and tired after a few weeks of work. But parents are exhausted and tired after years of unpaid work to plug the gaps in funding for our underfunded public schools caused by legislators’ dereliction of their duty. We call on legislators to reject this deal and fix it to address the issues we have identified above. If they pass this education funding plan, we will have no choice but to urge the Supreme Court to reject it and order the legislature to do better.