Now that I’ve explained to Republican legislators that Levy Equalization equals Socialism, I thought it best to remind Democratic legislators that cuts in levy equalization do not necessarily equate to cuts in state funding for K-12 education.
News reports on the subject often talk about the millions of dollars local school districts get from levy equalization, but that’s not always how the Local Effort Assistance (LEA) program works. No, rather than providing additional funds to eligible districts, LEA often functions more like a property tax credit, lowering homeowners’ property tax bills by the LEA allocation.
For example, take the Tacoma School District, which for 2008 had a voter-approved local levy of $70.9 million dollars. Due to Tacoma’s slightly below-state-average adjusted assessed property value per student, the district received an LEA allocation of about $2.9 million. But because a district’s levy authority is reduced by the amount of the LEA allocation, Tacoma schools did not receive an additional $2.9 million dollars; rather, Tacoma property owners collectively paid $2.9 million less than they otherwise would have in property taxes.
Even had LEA been eliminated in 2008, the Tacoma School District would still have received the same, $70.9 million; Tacoma taxpayers simply would have paid a little more. And there are dozens of other districts where the levy authority “rollback” consumed all or most of the LEA allocation. That’s how levy equalization works.
Of course, there are many, mostly rural districts, that benefit enormously from levy equalization, particularly those with much lower than average assessed property value per student, and that strategically pass the minimal local levy necessary to qualify for the LEA program. For example, in 2008, the Mount Adams school district, with only about 1000 students, and average assessed values almost seven times below the state average, raised only $111,000 from its local levy, but received an additional $594,000 in LEA funds from the state.
That’s about $594 in extra state funds per student. Most Seattle school principals would kill for that kinda money.
Which brings us to my larger complaint with LEA: it is a convoluted hack that serves both as a bandaid on our inadequate level of state funding for K-12 education, and as a disincentive within the communities that rely on LEA most, to support the revenue solutions necessary to adequately fund K-12 education statewide. For the real problem is not that “property poor” districts have a hard time raising adequate local levies, but that they should be forced to rely on local levies at all to provide a basic level of education that is, after all, our state’s “paramount duty.”
So while it may be a little cold to suggest as I did on Slog, that “it’s time to give rural Republicans the government they demand” (and let’s face it, especially when one factors in levy authority rollbacks, LEA is a program that largely benefits rural, Republican leaning districts), it is smart politics for those who truly care about long term education funding to use levy equalization as a bargaining chip to, at the very least, force Republicans to honestly debate the issue. If they want this rural welfare—and it is welfare—they should be forced to fight for it.
But more importantly, if they want adequate state funding of basic education, Republicans should be forced to fight for adequate state funding of basic education for all our children.