There’s already a large gap in funding and academic achievement between King County schools and the state’s poorer schools. These inequities would get worse under Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposal to cut $125 million from the state’s match for school levies for 200 property-poor school districts.
The districts losing this levy match have the lowest property values, lowest local levies, highest local taxes and largest percentages of poor and Hispanic students. Known as levy equalization, the match lowers funding and tax rate differences with richer schools. While the poorest schools would lose these levy-generated funds, the 50 wealthiest school districts would suffer no loss of levy revenues from the cuts in equalization proposed by Gregoire.
Pierce County would see a big impact. Bethel schools would lose $1.6 million per year, Clover Park $1.2 million, Tacoma $1 million and Puyallup $1.1 million. If these dollars aren’t replaced by local property tax increases, big cuts will result.
School funding in Pierce County is already unfair. Bethel has triple the tax rate of Bellevue, but Bellevue – because of its rich tax base – has raised 50 percent more revenue per student. If the levy match is cut, too, could Bethel raise $1.6 million more from the local levy on top of its already high tax rates to recover the lost funds? Can Pierce County schools raise $6.6 million more?
Each district is allowed a local levy equal to 24 percent of the district’s state and federal dollars. Most of the property-poor districts fail to pass the highest amount allowed. The poorer a district is, the greater the inequity.
Levy equalization provides a state match to the more highly taxed districts. Cutting the program would saddle poorer district with a disproportionate burden of the state’s $5.7 billion deficit. If Gregoire is to keep her no-new-taxes promise, she must maintain levy equalization rather than shift the tax load to local schools.
Most districts with low property values also have lower personal incomes and higher unemployment, and they can’t afford higher levies. The state’s poorest citizens pay 17.6 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes, while the richest pay only 3.1 percent, giving Washington the most regressive tax structure in the country, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
The lower personal incomes and higher taxes required prevent school boards in poorer areas from seeking the excessive local taxes needed for comparable levy dollars. Cutting equalization makes the unfair tax system worse.
Hispanics and the state’s poorest students are already most likely going to schools with the least levy funds. Granger in Yakima County, for example, has a 13 percent levy, 90 percent poverty rates and 86 percent Hispanic students. The second half of Granger’s property tax levy would cost $6.02 per $1,000 of assessed valuation while Bellevue’s costs only 36 cents.
It’s easy to see why Granger doesn’t pass its full levy. The proposed levy match cuts would cost Granger more than $400,000 per year, 25 percent of its levy/levy equalization revenues. Bellevue would lose nothing.
Lower levies lead to larger classes, lower pay and fewer counselors, specialists, administrators and assistants per student to help teachers. The workload is increased for teachers. Less service is provided to students.
State and federal research also shows the greatest turnover of teachers is in poorer rural areas. Property-poor schools compete with richer districts, mostly in King County, that provide over $10,000 per year more for teachers from levy funds.
Levy equalization prevents what would otherwise be an ever-growing gap between King County schools and the rest of the state. All students deserve an equal chance at a quality education. Teachers in poorer areas deserve equal pay for the tougher work they do. And the poorest areas should not have to pay the highest taxes to get their children comparable schools.
Neal Kirby, the principal at Edison Elementary School in Centralia, is a former state representative. He founded and chaired the Committee for Levy Equalization beginning in 1985.