If you listen closely enough, you can almost hear the faint echo of Gov. Jay Inslee’s words at the end of the 2017 legislative session: “This budget, at long last, meets our constitutional obligations to fully fund basic education.”
It took five years and a fine of $100,000 per day to move the Legislature toward that consensus, but lawmakers finally met the state Supreme Court mandate, for the most part.
So why are voters across Pierce County receiving ballots in the mail this week for a Feb. 13 special election asking them to fund school levy propositions? Didn’t the McCleary case solve the state’s public education problems once and for all?
Insert audible “Ha!” here.
Sure, lawmakers approved a new statewide property tax, to be phased in over the next two years, to pay for classroom teacher and school administrator salaries.
But Tacoma, like most Washington school districts, receives only 65 percent of its funding from the state. Twenty-two percent comes from local levies or bonds approved by taxpayers and another 13 percent from federal and other sources.
That’s why we encourage “yes” votes to renew operating levies in a dozen Pierce County school districts, from big hitters Puyallup and Bethel to smaller districts including Eatonville and Steilacoom.
The McCleary resolution was coupled with a loss in spending flexibility for districts. Starting in 2019, levies will be capped at either $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value or $2,500 per student, whichever is lower.
In jeopardy are programs like art and music education, athletics and other “enrichment” offerings. As Tacoma Superintendent Carla Santorno recently told our Editorial Board: “These are the very programs that led to our success,” including a more than 30-percent increase in high school graduation rates in seven years.
Santorno said the gains were the result of several factors such as improving school culture and school facilities, as well as connecting kids with strong extracurricular programs.
We don’t want to see Tacoma schools lose those hard-earned gains. Prop 1 gives elementary, middle and high school students access to arts, music, athletics, summer school and more. It also covers facility upkeep and enhanced security. It funds discipline and bully prevention.
Prop 2, which also deserves a “yes,” ensures access to technology and training. It means every neighborhood school has updated computers and devices. It also includes a new online portal to monitor academic progress and attendance.
Keep in mind all the Feb. 13 votes in Pierce County are renewal propositions; they replace operating levies approved by voters in 2014. In the next four years, the owner of a $260,000 home will see local taxes go down $278 per year (though that will be offset by the new state property tax for schools).
This is not the time to lose momentum. Even with levy approval, Tacoma schools will lose an estimated $151 per student in the 2018-2019 school year, $121 in 2019-2020 and $154 in 2020-2021. That’s because the state property tax plan resulted in winners and losers, which legislators still must address.
Long after McCleary fades into history, South Sound schools will need levy and bond aid to cover programs, facilities and staff (such as school nurses) not funded by the state.
What the Legislature did was centered on Washington’s “paramount duty” under the constitution to provide a basic education. But local communities -- whether urban, suburban or rural -- have a duty of their own.
To produce thriving, well-rounded students who will eventually run our society, local schools need to be better than basic.