One way to figure out whether an old practice makes sense is to ask, “If we were starting from scratch – today – is this how we’d do it?”
Ask that question about Washington’s school levy system, and the answer is an emphatic “No way.”
The state Supreme Court’s mandate that the Legislature fully fund basic education is forcing lawmakers to confront the catastrophe their predecessors created by leaving so much of the burden on local school districts. That history produced a status quo in which rich districts can hire more teachers than poor districts, can pay them better and be more selective about whom they hire.
This isn’t just unfair. As Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn said last week, it’s a civil rights issue. The district in which children live should not restrict their access to the most effective teachers and the best public education. Washington’s teachers should be paid fairly and generously – by the state.
Much of the problem arises from the fact that local school boards have been breaking the law with the tacit approval of the Legislature. Under state law, school levy funds cannot be used for teacher salaries, though districts can use it to pay teachers for duties above and beyond their regular classroom work. In practice, under labor agreements signed by school boards, a lot of levy money is spent on across-the-board salary increases.
That gives a decisive advantage to wealthy districts. Some of them can sweeten an experienced teacher’s salary by $20,000 or more. To a degree, disparities in pay are driven by higher costs of living. But they are also driven by school boards that easily accede to union demands.
What has to be done is obvious: Local levies should be lowered sharply and their use strictly limited to genuinely supplemental expenses. The Legislature should assume all responsibility for teacher compensation – and should pay them well. The profession should not come out behind in the bargain.
Lawmakers could pay for this by collecting what districts wouldn’t be collecting once local levies were lowered. Or they could find a different source of revenue. Senate Democrats have been looking at a capital gains tax, for example.
A bill sponsored by state Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, provides one good approach to levy reform. Senate Bill 6109 would lower district levies and proportionately increase the state’s school property tax. It contains serious safeguards against misdirecting levy money. It would also create a state commission charged with ensuring that teacher salaries keep pace with professions requiring similar skills and education.
Under his plan, a lot of teachers would get big pay raises. The low-end average salary, he says, would be almost $60,000. Beginning teachers would tend to be paid much better than they are now, which would expand the pool of exceptional candidates.
There may be other ways to skin this cat, but any solution must produce equal educational opportunity to all the state’s children. The patchwork of levies we have now isn’t just and ought to be intolerable.