Levy reform is path to equity in state schools

From the editorial board

Gov. Jay Inslee arrives to talk to reporters about his proposed supplemental budget plan Dec. 17 in Olympia. He also announced a proposal to increase teacher pay.
Gov. Jay Inslee arrives to talk to reporters about his proposed supplemental budget plan Dec. 17 in Olympia. He also announced a proposal to increase teacher pay. The Associated Press

In his new budget proposal, Gov. Jay Inslee asks the Legislature to give beginning teachers a big bump in pay. He’s got the right idea, but he’s passing up an obvious way to finance it – levy reform.

A recent survey from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction leaves no doubt that many Washington teachers are underpaid, especially in the launch phase of their careers. The survey of 737 principals points to a severe shortage of teachers in the state’s schools.

Key findings:

▪ In urban districts, 41 percent of the principals said they hadn’t found enough teachers to cover all their classes as of mid-October, long after the school year began.

▪ In high-poverty schools, 58 percent of the principals hadn’t found enough certified teachers.

▪ The shortage of permanent teachers spills over into a scarcity of substitute teachers. Most of the principals described their difficulty finding subs as a “crisis.” Again, the problem is worst in high-poverty schools.

The inescapable conclusion is that our classrooms aren’t attractive enough to potential teachers. Teaching is grueling work; it is mentally and emotionally exhausting. The best teachers are typically a combination of scholar, performer, social worker and Energizer Bunny. People like that can do well in other fields. You have to entice them into teaching with competitive salaries.

Inslee proposes to raise starting salaries from $35,700 to $40,000 a year. To pay for this and other educational enhancements, he wants to repeal several tax preferences that the Legislature has refused to repeal in the past.

But higher pay for new teachers is part of a much larger picture. The state must invest hundreds of millions of dollars more into public education to meet its constitutional obligation to fully fund the schools. At the same time, it has an obligation to offer a high-quality education to all the state’s schoolchildren — not just those who happen to live in wealthy school districts.

Levy reform addresses both obligations.

As things stand, property-poor districts — even with higher tax rates — can’t raise remotely as much money per student as wealthy districts. And the state’s historic failure to fully fund the schools has prompted wealthy districts to illegally fatten the salaries of teachers with local levy revenue. Poor districts can’t compete.

This leads to vicious disparities in teacher compensation. A teacher in Edmonds or Mukilteo can earn upwards of $10,000 more than a teacher with comparable experience and credentials in Puyallup or Bethel.

The obvious solution is for the Legislature to assume all responsibility for paying teachers — as the Washington Constitution demands. That will require shifting some existing levy revenues to the state, which can then distribute them equitably to rich and poor districts, factoring in regional differences in the cost of living.

A levy shift would fall far short of all the money needed for the Legislature to recruit and retain good teachers, but it would get part way there. Just as important, it would make for more fairness for children in poor districts. That’s what lawmakers should be focusing on in 2016.