Whatever the outcome of budget negotiations in the coming legislative session, local school districts shouldn’t expect any additional state funding coming their way. In fact, even with new revenue added to the equation, I wouldn’t be surprised to see an additional bite taken out of K-12 education as the legislature struggles to balance a $2.6 billion shortfall in the last year of our current two-year budget.
What seems increasingly likely however, is a temporary or even permanent lift in the state imposed local school levy lid, that currently limits local, voter-approved school levies to a maximum of 24% of a district’s operating budget, or as high as 33% for a handful of districts that were grandfathered in at a higher rate. The logic is that with state funding in short supply, local districts should be able to ask local voters to make up the difference.
At the same time, I also expect the governor and legislature to yield to pressure to save “levy-equalization” payments, state funds that go to “property poor” districts to help offset their residents’ inability (or unwillingness) to raise adequate local school levies. Individual, one can make rational arguments for and against both lifting the levy lid, and maintaining levy-equalization, but combined, I fear that the policies will only serve to undermine broad support for state K-12 funding over the long term.
Why? Consider the rational self-interest of a Mercer Island parent and taxpayer. Freed from the shackles of the school levy lid, the Mercer Island School District can now raise all the money it needs and wants, with little if any concern for what goes on in Olympia. Even better, all of the additional money raised locally is kept local; not a dime goes to subsidizing education in less affluent districts.
Now consider the rational self-interest of taxpayers in those “property-poor” districts. These are the same parts of the state that generally oppose new taxes, and support tax cuts… a statewide voting block that makes it nearly impossible to fund K-12 education at adequate levels. Yet despite their steady opposition to new state taxes, and their lack of support for local levies, they get the levy-equalization payments nonetheless. It might be unfair to say that the state is rewarding them for failing to raise school funds locally, but such anti-tax sentiment certainly appears to come at little cost. I mean, why should residents vote to raise their own taxes at either the state or local level, if they think their schools are going to get the money regardless?
Like I said, rational self-interest. And it’s hard to see how either lid-lifts or levy-equalization provide much incentive for voters in both wealthy and poor districts to support statewide funding for K-12 education.
If, on the other hand, these less affluent districts feared their levy-equalization payments might get cut off, they might be more supportive of statewide revenue increases that could stave off such an educational calamity. And if the residents of affluent districts continue to have the quality of their children’s education somewhat tied to that of the state as a whole, they too will remain advocates for adequate statewide K-12 funding.
For all the legitimate criticisms one can make of K-12 funding in Washington state, it still remains far more equitable than that of my native Pennsylvania, were the state/local funding formula is reversed, and thus the quality of your education is largely determined by the property tax base of the school district in which you are raised. And when it comes to equity, it would be a shame for our current budget crisis to permanently push us in the wrong direction.