Restoring school levy flexibility in Washington would be sweet music to our ears

Karen McNamara is a teacher and president of the union representing Puyallup public school teachers.
Karen McNamara is a teacher and president of the union representing Puyallup public school teachers. Courtesy

I’ve taught many classes in my career as a public school teacher. When I was a music teacher, I could tell you which students had a stronger voice, a stronger ear, a stronger sense of rhythm, and who had the ability to read musical notes.

I was flexible as I approached individual students to make sure I supported them in reaching their academic potential, but also in instilling a love for music.

That kind of flexibility is what legislators must restore so that voters in each Washington school district can make funding decisions based on the needs of students in their community.

Just as I knew whether to hand a guitar, a recorder or a pair of drumsticks to a child, parents, educators and voters know what students in their district need to succeed.

Yes, the Washington Supreme Court’s McCleary decision resulted in increased funding for our schools, but the state does not fund everything. School districts pay for arts programs, extra nurses and counselors, teachers and instructional assistants to reduce class sizes and much more.

When the Legislature voted to dramatically restrict school levies in 2017, even lawmakers knew they would need to provide a “levy fix” in the next budget.

Currently there are several bills in Olympia to restore some levy flexibility, which Puyallup educators support to fend off drastic cuts our district is threatening to make.

We are facing cuts in all subject areas, including music, art and drama. Classes in elementary schools are being staffed at 30 students, and classes in junior highs and high schools are being staffed at 40 students to start.

I have heard that a high school calculus class could potentially start with 55 students!

At this point in the legislative session, we believe it is premature for the Puyallup School Board and superintendent to threaten those kinds of cuts.

Instead, we should work together with local legislators to restore local school levies. That’s what Puyallup students – and all students – deserve, and it’s what we as adults should be working toward.

It's not just in Puyallup. Each community has different needs beyond state-funded basic education and must be given the opportunity to vote yes or no on a levy to meet local needs.

Educators across our state are encouraging their lawmakers in Olympia to restore levy flexibility, to trust local voters to make decisions about things like extra counselors, arts programs and smaller class sizes.

Some of my students could sing like angels. Some could identify a recurring melody in a symphony. And some needed to simply begin with “do, re, mi.”

Every student had unique talents and every school has the obligation to meet its children’s needs.

We’ll continue to advocate for our students as they make their way through school.

Personally, I hope they’ll be on that journey knowing the difference between a major chord and a minor one, rather than learning the lesson that Washington state doesn’t value their specific needs enough to allow their communities to fund them.

Karen McNamara is a Puyallup School District teacher, Washington Education Association member and president of Puyallup Education Association, which represents almost 1,360 local educators.