In the days after the Washington Legislature approved a new state budget in June, school-finance experts began reading the fine print. They soon started warning that while lawmakers may have increased state spending on schools, some richer districts would get a bigger boost than many poorer ones.
Months later, a Supreme Court justice raised similar concerns last week during a hearing on the adequacy of the Legislature’s four-year plan for school spending. An attorney for the state dismissed those worries and argued that lawmakers attempted to be fair to all schools.
But not long after that hearing ended, the nonpartisan League of Education Voters released a new analysis that questions whether the state’s bigger new K-12 budget will fuel a growing divide between poor and rural districts and their wealthier urban counterparts.
Daniel Zavala, the League’s policy and government relations director, stressed that he wasn’t suggesting the new public-schools budget was inherently bad.
“What I’m saying is will we take a pause and start identifying things that don’t comport or align with the intention of what the (budget) was supposed to do?” Zavala said.
For its analysis, the League looked at four-year budget projections from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). And the estimates showed districts like Tukwila and Yakima — where student poverty rates top 70 percent — will get a significant boost in funding for schools. Tukwila will see its overall budget rise 19 percent by 2020, while Highline, at 26 percent, will fare a bit better.
But Mercer Island schools, where just 3 percent of students live in poverty, also will get a 26 percent bump. The future’s even rosier for Lake Washington: About 11 percent of students there come from low-income households, yet the district will bank 43 percent more money by 2020.
In the analysis, Zavala noted that many education-policy advocates hoped the new K-12 budget would remedy some of the state’s existing funding inequities between poor and wealthy districts.
Zavala cautioned that many factors could affect how the spending plan impacts local classrooms — one variable, for example, is what happens to local school levies. Still, he said, the OSPI data raises red flags about which districts may benefit the most.
State Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, also said it’s too early to tell whether the budget will create winners and losers.
Harris was one of eight lawmakers who hammered out the K-12 budget behind closed doors during this year’s legislative session. And he stressed that taxpayers in areas with bigger funding increases also will shell out more in property taxes to the state.
“Mercer Island’s going to pay a bunch more,” he said. “Yes, those districts got more, but everybody got more.”
He also urged everyone to see how the new budget works before jumping to conclusions and asking for changes.
An earlier analysis of the budget shows Mercer Island residents will see their tax bills rise by $1,280 for a median-priced home by 2021. Lake Washington residents similarly will pay more in property taxes, while Tukwila and Yakima taxpayers will see their rates decline slightly.