Levy swap is critical to state K-12 funding

The News TribuneJuly 9, 2013 

On public school funding, lawmakers are right and their critics are wrong. The 2013 Legislature made a big step toward ample funding of public education by earmarking an addition $1 billion for the K-12 system.

Compliance with the Washington Supreme Court’s McCleary decision will require more, of course, but all the money was never going to materialize overnight.

One remarkable thing has been going unremarked.

The Legislature and supreme court are co-equal branches of government. Lawmakers conceivably could have brushed off McCleary the way Andrew Jackson once brushed off an 1832 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court: Enforce your own damn decision.

Lawmakers instead worked in good faith to satisfy the Washington Constitution’s mandate that the state “make ample provision for the education all children rising within its borders.”

But Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn makes a fair point when he says the Legislature picked the “low-hanging fruit” to come up with that $1 billion.

The easiest fruit to grab was $354 million from the state’s public works account, which provides local governments with cheap loans for local water, sewer and street projects.

That’s one-time money. The Legislature must come up with something better for future bienniums.

One obvious place to go is the levy swap. The basic theory:

 • Many districts are currently being forced to come up with 20 percent or more of their budgets from property tax levies that pass or fail depending on the mood of the taxpayers.

 • The McCleary decision says all basic education money should come from the state – from a reliable source. Levies don’t count as reliable. (Raids on the public works account aren’t reliable, either.)

 • Under the swap, the state would increase the property taxes it collects for schools, and districts would be required to decrease their levies accordingly.

 • The switch would be roughly revenue-neutral. Taxpayers as a whole would pay no more, though there’d be some shift from the wealthiest districts (largely in King County) to poor ones.

This wouldn’t take the Legislature all the way to “ample provision,” but it would vastly improve the dependability and fairness of local school funding.

The swap could be done well or badly, but some version of it is obviously necessary to comply with McCleary and the constitutional mandate. Lawmakers – and the governor – should be arguing about how to do it, not whether.

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