Peter Callaghan: Education bill’s unheralded details will need attention

Sometimes the best stuff is at the bottom of the press release and the end of the press conference.

Not to belittle the proposal last week by Senate Democrats to close a few tax loopholes and spend the money on public schools. It’s just that Gov. Jay Inslee beat them to it, House Democrats followed them by a day, and it’s only a trickle of what is going to be needed to meet the state Supreme Court’s order in the McCleary school-funding decision.

Deeper down in Senate Bill 6574, though, are some issues that few in the Legislature have been willing to take on – specifically, how teachers are paid and the size of local school levies.

Levies are the problem that everyone acknowledges but few want to tackle. Large levies — as high as 38 percent of a district’s budget — are both a cause and a symptom of school-funding problems exposed again in McCleary.

The state is now struggling to meet the order of the court that it fully fund basic education by 2018. But as the Legislature increases state funding, it will have to decrease the amounts of school money that come out of local levies.

It tried this once before. In 1977 the Legislature capped levies at 10 percent in response to an earlier court finding. But to ease the transition, the Legislature let districts with levies higher than 10 percent keep them. The idea was that those grandfathered districts would gradually come down to 10 percent. Instead, the grandfathered districts stayed high and the others were allowed to climb higher as well.

Now, 205 of the state’s 295 districts have levy caps at 28 percent and the rest have caps ranging from 28 percent to 37.9 percent.

That must change.

“All of us know as we increase our funding, we have to address the levy issue over time,” said Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle.

One section of SB 6574 would slowly begin that process, starting with the grandfathered districts with the highest caps. It also takes on another problem. State law says teacher pay levels are set by the Legislature and that the state, not local districts, covers the full cost. State money must compensate teachers for the delivery of basic education. Local levies, by law, can only add pay for additional services like extra time and more responsibilities, and incentive pay.

But that law too has been ignored. Over time, significant amounts of basic teacher pay come from levies. The total teacher compensation in Washington isn’t too low, a study commissioned in 2012 showed. The problem is that too much comes from local levies and too little from the state.

What difference does it make? Using local levies for something as basic as compensation creates inequities and a lack of reliability. Districts with bigger levies and higher property values are able to shift more levy money to compensation. Smaller or poorer districts have to follow suit unless they want to face labor troubles or loss of staff to wealthier districts. All districts are pressured to use levy dollars – which are supposed to pay for extras and enhancements – for teacher pay (as well as such basic things as heat and books).

That’s why it is significant that the Senate Democratic bill begins to implement the recommendations of an obscure 2012 working group on compensation. That group of experts and education stakeholders suggested simplifying the overly complex state salary grid and shifting from a system that rewards extra degrees and years of service with one that rewards performance. But the working group also proposed that when full state funding is achieved, the state should cap the amount of levy money that can flow into pay.

This bill likely won’t pass. Not now.

Instead the Legislature might agree to create another task force (Senate Bill 6499) to look into school funding. Still, putting the issues of compensation reform, levy reductions and capping how much of local levies can be used for compensation on the table is what passes for progress.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657