Politics & Government

Ad says Republican plan would hurt schools. We fact-check the claims

Members of the statewide teachers union descend on the Capitol Campus Tuesday, May 23 to rally for increased school funding as the Legislature finishes its first special session of 2017. Union members are urging lawmakers to reject the budget proposal from the Republican Senate majority. A new radio ad from the union makes some dubious claims about how the Republican proposal would hurt the state’s public schools.
Members of the statewide teachers union descend on the Capitol Campus Tuesday, May 23 to rally for increased school funding as the Legislature finishes its first special session of 2017. Union members are urging lawmakers to reject the budget proposal from the Republican Senate majority. A new radio ad from the union makes some dubious claims about how the Republican proposal would hurt the state’s public schools. sbloom@theolympian.com

With rallies at the Capitol and ads on the radio, the statewide teachers union has been hammering Republicans’ plan to fix how Washington pays for public schools.

But the union’s latest one-minute radio spot takes a few liberties with the truth.

The ad is part of an ongoing effort to influence the Legislature’s debate over public school funding.

Right now, lawmakers are in the middle of their second overtime session to come up with a budget that complies with a 2012 court order to fully fund public schools. Progress is slow — partly because the Senate is controlled by a coalition of Republicans and one conservative Democrat, while the state House is under the Democrats’ control.

Here’s a look at the claims made in the radio ad sponsored by the Washington Education Association, and where the ad’s statements stray from reality.

Claim 1: The Senate Republican budget “doesn’t increase funding” for the state’s public schools.

The facts: The school-funding plan put out by Senate Republicans would increase money for public schools by a minimum of $871 million over the next two years, according to an analysis by the state Office of Financial Management. That’s after taking into account how much the plan would reduce local school-district property taxes, which is a key element of the Republican plan.

Conclusion: False. While the Senate budget doesn’t include as much net new funding for public schools as a rival plan from the Democrat-led state House, the net change in funding under the GOP plan — even after factoring in decreases in local levy rates — is still an increase.

Claim 2: “The Senate Republican budget slashes funding for special education.”

The facts: According to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, keeping up with the rising cost of special-education services in Washington would cost the state about $965 million in the 2018-19 school year.

The Senate budget plan would surpass that number, putting about $1.1 billion into special-education services that year, according to OSPI. The GOP budget plan also would provide more than the state needs to maintain special-education services each of the next two school years, according to OSPI’s analysis.

Rich Wood, a spokesman for the Washington Education Association, said union members’ primary concern about special-education funding has been that many districts use their local levy money to make up for shortfalls in what the state and federal government provide.

Because the Senate budget would take away school districts’ abilities to raise local levies, Wood said, that could leave some districts struggling to bridge the gap.

“It limits the ability of school districts to invest in special education beyond what the Senate budget provides, which in some cases would be a reduction,” he said.

Dan Steele, lobbyist for the Washington Association of School Administrators, still said he thinks it’s inaccurate to say the GOP budget would slash special-education funding, since the plan would increase what the state provides for those students.

“It increases funding — but probably not to the level that’s needed,” Steele said.

Conclusion: Mostly false. The Senate budget increases special-education funding beyond what the state says is required to maintain existing special-education services.

Claim 3: The Senate budget “takes away local flexibility and local control of schools.”

The facts: The Senate Republicans’ plan would eliminate all local school-district property tax levies for one year in 2019. Then, starting in 2020, the plan would allow districts to enact new, much smaller local levies.

Going forward under the proposal, school districts’ local tax collections would be capped at 10 percent of the total revenue they receive from the state and federal government. Right now, most school districts have a much more liberal levy lid of 28 percent.

The Senate plan also would enact rules to ensure the new, more modest local levies could only be used to pay for extras outside the state’s program of basic education. In the McCleary case, the state Supreme Court said the state has been relying too heavily on local levies to pay for basic education costs, which are a state responsibility.

Conclusion: True. The Senate Republican plan would restrict school districts’ ability to raise local taxes, while imposing new rules on how they can spend the limited tax money they collect.

Claim 4: The Senate’s plan would force “many school districts to cut teacher pay and fire school employees.”

Facts: The Senate Republican budget would impose a new limit on how much districts can spend on salaries and personnel costs. Under the plan, a district would be able to spend only 80 percent of its general-fund budget on employee salaries and benefits.

Districts that currently exceed that limit would have until the 2023-24 school year to get into compliance.

It’s not certain the Senate plan would force districts to cut pay or lay off staff, but it’s a possibility, Steele said. Right now, 120 of the state’s 295 school districts spend more than 80 percent of their budget on staffing and personnel costs, according to the state superintendent’s office.

State Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia and the chief Senate budget writer, said those districts should be able to reduce the proportion of their budgets spent on salaries over time without having to lay off staff or cut teachers’ pay.

He said that can be accomplished naturally if district officials limit the salary increases they negotiate with teachers over the next six years, while the state continues adding more money to district budgets.

“It really depends on how (the districts) choose to allocate those additional funds,” said Jake Vela, senior policy analyst with the League of Education Voters.

Vela said as far as the ad’s claim that teacher pay or positions would need to be cut, “That’s more speculative.”

“It’s making predictions about what districts may or may not do going forward,” he said.

Conclusion: Half true. While districts could end up choosing to trim staffing or salaries due to the restrictions imposed under the Senate budget, it’s not clear that would happen. And the teachers union’s ad misleads listeners by acting as if those cuts would have to occur immediately.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

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