K-12 funding inequity persists - just look at Pierce County

Neal Kirby is a Centralia educator and former member of the Washington Legislature.
Neal Kirby is a Centralia educator and former member of the Washington Legislature. Courtesy photo

The state Supreme Court ruled last month that the Legislature is still out of compliance with constitutional “ample provisions” requirements litigated in the McCleary court case and demanded more money for schools. But the court ignored important issues of student equity.

Under new education finance laws approved before the ruling, school districts with the highest rates of poverty and minority students are provided the lowest pay for teachers and the lowest local levy funding.

This will result in significant disparities in Pierce County. Moreover, it creates doubts about the state meeting its constitutional mandate in Article IX:

“It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex” and “the legislature shall provide for a general and uniform system of public schools.”

The 2017 Legislature instead ended equal state salary funding and greatly increased salary money for the wealthiest districts. Some will receive 24 percent more pay than 200 other districts. Most King, Snohomish and Kitsap county schools get 18 percent more than base pay.

Bethel and Eatonville get the base pay. Tacoma, Sumner, Dieringer, Peninsula and Fife get 12 percent more, while the rest in Pierce County get 6 percent more than the base.

Eatonville teachers could get paid 12 percent more by switching to Sumner.

Local levy tax rates are also cut to $1.50 per $1,000 property valuation. Districts too poor to collect even $1,500 per student will receive state matches to bring them up to that level.

King County’s richest districts will collect $2,500 per student from the local levy, 66 percent more than all but one Pierce County school district, which are limited to $1,500 and will suffer huge cuts in levy equalization.

There’s a $0.82 per $1,000 increase in the state property tax to help pay for the regional salary plan. Between local levy cuts and added state tax, all Pierce districts except Peninsula get a net property tax cut.

The new laws favor urban schools. Despite paying fairer and equal tax rates, poorer schools are denied equal educational services.

These laws also codify institutional discrimination against districts with the highest percentages of poor and minority students, leaving them with the lowest pay and levies and least ability to attract teachers or provide equal enrichment and sports from levies.

The regional salary plan contradicts state-commissioned research. The 2012 Compensation Technical Working Group studied teacher attrition and concluded that state salary funding should be equal.

University of Washington research in 2005-2006 shows King County has the lowest teacher turnover. Central Washington has the highest attrition and highest minority and poverty counts. The salary plan widens the gap.

In “K-12 Finance and Student Performance Study,” the Legislative Audit and Review Committee shows the poorest districts have the lowest test scores and have teachers with the least training and experience.

In “A Review of K-12 Regional Cost Issues,” the Office of Financial Management found housing most costly in urban areas, but no evidence that this led to greater teacher attrition. Yet the state salary plan is based on housing costs.

The state constitution requires a uniform system for all students, including equal opportunities to attract teachers. It doesn’t require equal buying power for teacher pay received. Higher salaries weren’t needed to improve attracting teachers in high-cost areas.

McCleary dealt only with “ample provision” but not the “distinction on account of race, color, or caste” or “uniform system” clauses in the constitution. No judgment was given on equity.

The justices ruled the state needs another $1 billion for education. It should go toward equalizing salaries and equalizing all levies up to $2,500 per student.

How could Pierce County legislators support more taxes unless they also make educational services more fair?

Neal Kirby is a member of the Centralia School Board and a former state representative for the 7th Legislative District.