Do the math: Proposed school funding model is necessary to foster equality

Peter Callaghan’s column (TNT, 10-6) identifies a critical disconnect in gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee’s thinking about the future of education funding in Washington state.

Inslee’s dismissive character-ization of a proposed plan to address inequities in school funding as a “gimmick” signals a serious lack of understanding of the scope of these inequities, the negative impact on the taxpayers in many school districts and, more importantly, the unconscionable inequities in students’ opportunities to learn that result.

In order to understand why this is so, a brief review of the math is required.

The Legislature determines a school district’s maximum levy authority (i.e., the amount of money a district can ask its citizens to approve in a levy vote) in terms of a percentage of the district’s total state and federal revenues. The intent of the maximum levy law was to restrict the amount property-rich districts (e.g., Seattle, Bellevue and others, which benefit from population density and extensive commercial property) could ask voters to approve; the intent was more equitable funding of public schools.

The Doran decision (1977) limited the amount of local levy authority to 10 percent, with the state retaining responsibility to fully fund basic education. However, over the years, the Legislature has repeatedly increased that maximum percentage (even for districts, like Seattle, that were already “grandfathered” at higher percentages).

The result is that in districts such as Yakima, even though they have increased levy authority, there is simply no way they can run a maximum allowable levy because the cost to their constituents would be far too high.

Currently, Seattle School District runs a 36.97 percent levy that costs its taxpayer only $1.25 per $1,000 of assessed value of property. In University Place, we run a 28.29 percent levy that costs our taxpayers $3.72 per $1,000. Yakima runs a levy at 13 percent, which costs its taxpayers $2.79 per $1,000.

For Yakima School District to run its levy at the maximum 28 percent, the cost would be $6.13 per $1,000, which would simply be impossible. Consequently, Yakima School District collects $15 million less in levy funds than it is authorized to collect.

With the local taxpayer-funded share of total revenue currently at an average of 18 percent statewide, it should not be difficult to understand how these inequities directly impact opportunities for students. Seattle and other property-rich districts can raise millions more in school funds at a much lower cost to their taxpayers than many districts across the state.

Those additional millions provide more programs, services and options for students and are able to backfill for the significant reductions in state funding of the past four years. Further, they can negotiate contracts that provide higher salaries and benefits to all their employees, which creates difficult bargaining pressures in less well-funded districts.

As Callaghan points out, the current proposal crafted by state Rep. Ross Hunter is not perfect, but at least it acknowledges the fiscal and moral imperative to establish a more equitable funding model for all the state’s public schools, a more equitable school tax burden for all the state’s citizens and more equitable educational opportunities for all the state’s children.

Patti Banks is the University Place school superintendent.