Voters support schools; states should do more

As voters continue to support their local schools, the state must step up and share responsibility.

Fifty-three local school boards went to voters asking for more than $1.7 billion in levies for their schools in this February’s special election. Communities responded with overwhelming support to these requests, passing all but one levy, and most by a large margin. In a time of rhetoric about how voters are unwilling to support education through revenue, this election stands in stark contrast.

In fact, voters approved more than 98 percent of local levies across the state, committing $1.7 billion in taxes to their schools. When voters pass these levies, they know their money is going directly to helping children, providing necessary services to help students get an excellent education.

In many school districts, local levies make up 25 percent or more of the total operating costs of a district. In my North Thurston district, it’s 21 percent. These local dollars often pay for necessary school costs like staff salaries, textbooks, or a sixth period in school—a far cry from the “extras” they were originally intended to provide.

In more affluent districts, voters are often able to support both the essentials and the extras with their local levies, while districts with fewer or less affluent residents often cannot. This means many students in our state are not getting the basic education they are entitled to simply because of where they live.

Further, reliance on these local levies keeps school funding far from being a sure thing. When schools must ask voters to approve new funding every few years, planning becomes difficult and stability is threatened.

In 2007, we voted to make sure schools can get the funds they need by approving an initiative that allows levies to pass with a simple majority, rather than a supermajority, of the vote. This initiative made it possible for more than a quarter of the levies to pass our recent election.

While voters continue to support their local schools, the state’s support has eroded significantly. In January 2012, the Washington state Supreme Court found the way we fund our schools to be unconstitutional, and upheld the ruling in McCleary v. Washington, saying the state was not meeting its constitutionally mandated “paramount duty” to fully fund basic education. The court ordered the Legislature to overhaul how education is funded in the state by 2018.

Local communities have responded to the waning support from the state by providing more and more of their own local support. However, we cannot, and should not, expect local communities to continue to shoulder ever-increasing tax burdens for a job the state is required to do.

I have been a strong public education advocate for many years, having served my community and the state, and I appreciate the great effort it takes to ensure the success of these levies. I congratulate districts and voters across the state for realizing how much these investments mean to our students and passing these measures.

But, while this work is important, the money we raise should go to enriching our students’ education, not to providing the essentials.

This session, our state legislators are tasked with finding and implementing a solution that meets the state’s constitutional duty to fully and equitably fund education across the state. Some politicians repeatedly tell us that voters are not willing to support new revenue to fund education.

However, this round of local levy passages shows that when voters can see their money well-spent, they come out strongly in favor of providing for their schools.

I hope that our legislators take this lesson to heart, so that all of our state’s students have the opportunity to attend a school that is amply, equitably and stably funded.

Thelma Jackson is the former five-time president of the North Thurston School Board. She currently serves on the board of the League of Education Voters.

Editor's Note: Election results finalized Feb. 26 show that two levies, not one, failed to pass in their districts, resulting in a 96 percent levy passage rate overall. In addition to the Battle Ground Maintenance and Operations Levy, the La Center Capital Levy did not pass. School boards across the state requested $1.8 billion in local levies and local voters granted $1.7 billion.