With K-12 education accounting for about a third of state general fund expenditures, and a $5 billion-plus revenue shortfall projected over the next biennium budget, there’s little doubt that there will be at least some cuts in state funding of basic education… possibly as much as a billion dollars or more.
That could amount to over $1,000 per student, maybe two to three hundred thousand dollars a year out of your typical elementary school budget, a devastating cut that would result in larger class sizes and the elimination of “extras” like the arts, physical education, teaching assistants, tutors, counselors and other programs. But it doesn’t have to happen that way.
The state could raise additional revenues by eliminating billions of dollars in special purpose tax exemptions, and by extending the sales tax to some personal and business services (something the state will eventually have to do if it refuses to adopt an income tax). But if, as many observers assume, the Legislature and Governor lack the balls to do what’s necessary to give voters the services they want, they should just let local school districts raise the taxes themselves.
Currently, the maximum local levy for about two-thirds of the state’s school districts is limited to 24% of state and federal funding, with the remaining schools grandfathered in at a lid as high as 33.9% (Seattle is capped at 32.9%). There are a lot of sound reasons for maintaining this policy, and I’m not opposed to the school levy lid in theory. But in these desperate economic times we need to let local communities choose to adequately fund K-12 education if the state proves unable (or unwilling) to fulfill its obligation.
A temporary lid lift of say, an additional 10%, would give local school districts the flexibility they need to weather this economic downturn without cutting basic education services. And of course, local voters would always have the final say. Districts in areas of the state that oppose higher taxes might choose not to seek a higher levy, or might have any increase rejected at the polls, but there’s little doubt that the vast majority of districts here in the Puget Sound region would stand a good chance of passing a temporary levy hike if a compelling argument can be made to voters.
Governor Gregoire ran on a no new taxes pledge, and I don’t doubt she plans to try to keep it, but that shouldn’t keep her or the Legislature from granting local taxing districts the authority they need to ask local voters to tax themselves to make up for any cuts in state funding. It is simply unfair and unreasonable for anti-tax sentiment in the rest of the state to dictate local tax policies, or to impose a lowest common denominator approach toward something as crucial as K-12 education.
As we saw once again in last month’s election, Seattle voters have proven themselves extremely generous when it comes to funding the services and infrastructure projects we want. Given the opportunity to ease the impact of proposed state K-12 funding cuts, I’m confident Seattle voters will prove generous once again.
That is, assuming, the Legislature and the Governor gives us that chance.