Elected leaders in all 50 states can vouch that it’s not easy or cheap to fulfill their duty to give every child access to a quality education and with it, a fighting chance at a quality life.
Some are further along than others. Consider a tale of two states: Washington and Kansas.
You probably don’t need to be convinced that living amid the tall trees beats living amid the tall corn. But if you do, just look at how differently the two states fund public schools within a pressure cooker of voter scrutiny and judicial oversight.
On orders from the state Supreme Court, the Washington Legislature has made a series of large investments in the K-12 system, after decades of shortchanging the state’s definition of basic education.
All told, Washington is spending around $10 billion more on schools in the current two-year budget than it did a decade ago.
It wasn’t pretty. It took lawmakers six years to finish the job. And they saved the hardest part for last, agreeing to end an unconstitutional cost-shift to local school districts whose property taxes have long subsidized teacher salaries. In its place, the Legislature adopted a controversial statewide property tax levy.
This month, the court finally signed off on the funding plan, lifted a contempt order and $100,000 daily penalty, and allowed the state to emerge from the shadow of the 2012 McCleary decision.
The plan earns passing marks — we’ll give it a B-, along with an urgent plea for legislators to do better. A handful of school districts, including Tacoma, wound up on the short end of the state’s new formula. They must be made whole.
Still, lawmakers are entitled to take a moment to celebrate the McCleary milestone. "It's a great day, the future is bright and the work on behalf of our kids will continue,” said Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson, D- Maury Island.
In Kansas, by contrast, state leaders face a gloomy outlook after six trips to their state Supreme Court.
While the Kansas Legislature agreed to phase in $550 million in new school funds over five years, that’s less than a third of what consultants say is needed, so it's unlikely to pass judicial muster. The court has said it won't let let schools operate with an unconstitutional funding formula beyond June 30.
A fraught mood hangs over Topeka; talk of special sessions and school shutdowns is in the air, and a K-12 funding crisis threatens to blow across the state, during an election year, no less.
Auntie Em, it's a twister, it's a twister!
At times like this, we're relieved to live in Washington, where taxpayers are committed to helping young people succeed and lawmakers take seriously their "paramount duty" under the constitution to do so.
But make no mistake: Significant work lies ahead, particularly as legislators grapple with making fair provision for special education. They also must confront a teacher shortage that’s compounded by regional disparities in pay.
The Tacoma School District is the poster child for the worst inequities.
As the state levy swap takes effect, Tacoma is the only district in Washington that expects to lose more than 50 percent of what it collects under its most recent voter-approved levy. That amounts to nearly $50 million down the drain starting next year.
So forgive Tacoma Superintendent Carla Santorno for not doing cartwheels about the McCleary case being closed. “We didn’t get taken care of,” she told the Editorial Board Thursday.
The state capped local tax collections at $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value or $2,500 per student, whichever is lower. Because Tacoma has relatively low property values, it will receive roughly $1,000 less per student compared to most districts in King County, Santorno says, despite higher poverty here that drives the need for more programs and services.
Tacoma officials know better than to hope the Legislature will arrive at a remedy on its own. “Hope is not a strategy,” Santorno said. “We will go down to Olympia and fight for a fix.”
As well they should.
Lawmakers will have their hands full next year on a thicket of issues ranging from higher education to homelessness, from mental health reform to long-term health care. Just last week, the U.S. Supreme Court stuck the state with a $2 billion tab for ongoing fish habitat restoration.
Amid all the competing priorities, giving Washington’s 1.1 million public school children a fighting chance must continue to be the paramount duty.