Opinion

Statewide school levy ‘fix’ has put Tacoma in a fix

Studying together around the dining room table with their children, Shawna and Mike Allen were part of a Tacoma Housing Authority program that provides stable housing and other student support for dozens of families at McCarver Elementary School. The program is made possible through voter-approved school levy dollars.
Studying together around the dining room table with their children, Shawna and Mike Allen were part of a Tacoma Housing Authority program that provides stable housing and other student support for dozens of families at McCarver Elementary School. The program is made possible through voter-approved school levy dollars. News Tribune file photo, 2013

Why has the Legislature’s solution to provide more equitable education funding left 253 of Washington’s 295 school districts facing devastating budget cuts?

A 2012 court case known as the McCleary decision found the state to be derelict in its paramount duty to fund basic education. The Legislature’s ultimate fix was to cap local levy dollars in exchange for more state dollars to end the disadvantage faced by poorer districts and ensure all receive their fair share from the state.

But this solution overlooked all the innovative ways districts use voter-approved levies to offer student opportunities not funded by state basic education dollars.

In Tacoma, these programs have made dramatic progress for the underrepresented populations that the Legislature’s fix was meant to support – progress that this same fix will halt in its tracks.

Student learning happens at home, at school and in the community. Not all students learn the same. Communities have long had the choice to invest in opportunities that recognize this reality and reflect the needs of their unique student populations beyond what the state supports.

Programs that are tailored for students with specialized needs and meet them where they’re at can produce positive educational outcomes – especially for those who might otherwise be left behind.

Thanks to an extraordinarily supportive community, Tacoma is one of the state’s greatest success stories with a graduation rate of 89.3 percent, surpassing the 81-percent statewide average.

Our community has stepped up to fund local levies at the ballot, and organizations and institutions like ours have engaged in unprecedented partnerships and programs for students who need more.

The beneficiaries include early-learning students, students speaking English as a second language, students needing learning assistance or other support services, high-poverty students, high-performing students and more:

▪  An arts education program in partnership with Tacoma Arts Live allows students to express creativity and learn cultural heritage through theater, music, and dance.

▪ A partnership with Metro Parks Tacoma allows middle schoolers to walk straight from the classroom to after-school basketball practice with fewer financial and logistical barriers.

▪ A partnership with Tacoma Housing Authority provides stable housing and supports student success at McCarver Elementary School.

Programs like these flow from our understanding that the social and emotional health of students and families is as essential to learning as anything in a classroom.

And they reflect our commitment to ensure all students, no matter their circumstances, have safe and encouraging environments, and can pursue excellence along whatever path they choose.

But without action by state lawmakers to make the new levy cap more flexible, these enriching investments and nearly 40 others will disappear – not because our community decided not to make them any longer, but because the Legislature told us we couldn’t.

If Tacoma can’t resolve the $30 million budget shortfall the Legislature created, the resulting cuts will harm students’ opportunities for success.

This can’t be what the Legislature intended when, in the name of fairness and equity, it passed the McCleary fix.

Tacoma’s investment in closing racial disparities in student outcomes is not just an education success story, it is a civil-rights success story. Rolling back choices we made as a community would be a setback not only for student success, but for social justice.

We are grateful to Tacoma lawmakers for building recognition among their colleagues of the need to provide districts with levy flexibility. We urge them to continue this important work by passing House Bill 2140 this session.

Tacoma is the City of Destiny. We hope the Legislature won’t prevent our community from determining its own destiny by giving our diverse students opportunities to determine their own destiny.

Kathi Littman is president and CEO of the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation. Shon Sylvia is executive director of Metro Parks Tacoma.

  Comments