Washington’s public schools aren’t merely underfunded; they’re unfairly funded. To get an idea of just how unfair, consider how teacher pay differs from school district to school district.
In theory – and legally – overall teacher compensation should be roughly the same across the state in any given district. Districts are not supposed to use levy money for basic pay.
In reality, they do. Bellevue uses local levy funding to add a sweet $18,607 to the compensation of a veteran teacher. Combined with the state allocates, that teacher makes $80,930 a year. Edmonds adds $18,644 in local money, resulting in a high-end package totaling $77,360.
In contrast, Yakima adds $6,772; its teachers top out at only $65,488. Pasco adds $6,023; its teachers top out at $64,751. Bethel and Federal way do somewhat better, each adding about $10,500 to compensation. Puyallup adds $9,155, Tacoma a generous $15,324. (Thanks to the Seattle Times for digging up these numbers.)
Why the disparities? Follow the money a little further.
Poverty in schools is tied to the rate of students who qualify for subsidized lunches. In Bellevue, that number is 19.6 percent. In Yakima, 83.5 percent of the students are poor. In Pasco, 74.2 percent are poor.
By no coincidence, the level of poverty in a community tends to reflect property values. Property-rich school districts have more power to raise levy money – even with lower tax rates.
Translation: In Washington, rich districts with wealthier students can offer teachers more money. Poor districts with more disadvantaged students can’t offer nearly as much.
Teachers are smart, and they haven’t taken a vow of poverty: Most are as interested in compensation as anyone else, and many of them will prefer a district that pays well to a district that pays not so well. High-paying districts have greater raw recruiting power. It’s simply impossible to offer Yakima children the same education as Bellevue children when there are such disparities in pay.
This comes down to an old adage about poverty and privilege: Them as has, gets. Them as don’t, don’t.
The Legislature cannot pretend to achieve equality in education unless it disentangles teacher pay from local school levies. Pumping more state money into the system as a whole is not enough if it locks in the relative advantages of wealthy districts.
Something like the proposed “levy swap” – in which some of the school money now being collected and spent by districts is instead collected and distributed by the state – seems the only path to fairness. The status quo is inherently skewed toward the privileged.
Swapping local taxation for state school taxation has proven fiendishly difficult. State Sen. Bruce Dammeier has made a game effort with his Senate Bill 6109, but it has met with a backlash because it would tend to raise school taxes in wealthier districts. Even he says the idea needs further refinement.
But the Legislature cannot let the idea go. The difficulty of reducing the system’s dependence on local money is simply more proof that the Legislature made a pact with the devil when – instead of allocating sufficient state funding to schools – it allowed levy rates to creep up over the decades.
The devil is fighting to enforce that pace, but lawmakers must fight harder to free the state’s children from its unfairness.