Across Washington State, public education is in crisis.
Seattle Public Schools (SPS) faces declining enrollment, huge impacts to student mental health from the pandemic, and a projected $156 million budget deficit by the fall of 2024. Despite years of litigation, the state still does not provide adequate funding for SPS to provide a basic education to its students.
But it's not just Seattle.
School districts across the state—large and small, urban and rural, east and west—have already made budget cuts, laying off teachers and scaling back programs. Chimacum schools, home to the McCleary family that sued the state in 2007 and ultimately forced a reluctant Legislature to add billions more in funding, has its own budget deficit and may have to make cuts next year. Marysville schools also had to make budget cuts and layoff teachers after a levy failed, despite the fact that the McCleary case was intended to end reliance on local levies.
Washingtonians believe their schools are underfunded and want to tax the rich to provide additional money, according to polling from the Northwest Progressive Institute.
Despite the clear need and strong public support, Democratic leaders do not appear to be taking public education seriously. Governor Jay Inslee's proposed budget is rightly bold on housing and homelessness, but it contains comparatively little for public education.
When legislative leaders met the media on Thursday, Democrats either didn't mention public education at all, or else talked about it as if it was a problem already solved and only a few small tweaks were needed.
Republican leaders, however, openly sounded the alarm about learning loss and budget woes. Their "solutions," such as tax cuts and vouchers, would make the problems significantly worse. But at least they seemed to care. Even Danny Westneat at the Seattle Times called out Democrats' failure to take public education seriously.
It doesn't have to be this way.
Washingtonians have a constitutional right to amply funded public schools. When Washington ranks 17th in education funding, spending nearly $10,000 less per student than Massachusetts while facing huge cuts, it's clear we're failing to deliver that right.
The 2023 legislative session should be a moment where a stable Democratic majority in Olympia throws aside a flawed education funding plan from 2017, adopted as a last-minute compromise with Republicans who controlled the Senate at the time, and instead develops a better model that is entirely their own. They could adopt a system that finally, fully, and amply funds our public schools, preventing cuts and eliminating the need for PTAs to raise money to provide staff and programs. They could even do so by making our tax system less regressive.
How We Got Into This Mess
It's worth taking a moment to understand how we got here. As Washington's Paramount Duty explained in a report issued last fall after Seattle teachers went out on strike, the education funding plan the Legislature adopted in response to the Supreme Court's order in the McCleary case was designed to fail.
The plan, adopted in the form of EHB 2242, falls short of actually funding the elements of a basic education. It prevents districts from making up that shortfall themselves by capping local levies. It effectively imposes a spending cap set so low that it creates a structural revenue shortfall for districts across the state.
The core of the Legislature's McCleary solution was to implement a demand from Republican legislators for a so-called "levy swap." Originally proposed by failed Republican candidate for governor, Rob McKenna, in 2012, this policy included enacting the largest statewide property tax hike in Washington's history in exchange for capping local levies.
In effect, local property tax revenue was taken by the state, and then returned to districts to cover some of the costs of basic education. This only works if the state provides enough funding to the districts to amply fund the full range of student needs and operational requirements.
That hasn't happened, as the ongoing deficits faced by districts across the state makes clear.
None of this should be surprising. The shortfalls were predicted. Within weeks of the Legislature's passage of EHB 2242, districts began sounding the alarm that it would leave them worse off than before. The Stranger quoted Larry Nyland, Superintendent of Seattle Public Schools in 2017, as saying "the state budget would result in budget deficits for Seattle schools, restrict Seattle school officials' use of state funding, and fail to fully pay for teachers' salaries and services for special education and English Language Learner programs."
Here in 2023, we can see all of those concerns have become reality. In addition to the budget deficits facing SPS and the limits on state funding that are causing the district to look at things like cuts to school buses, the September 2022 strike centered on problems with the delivery of special education and programs for multilanguage learners.
The Legislature maintains a cap on funding for special education services. They will only pay for 13.5% of students in a district to receive special education services. Anything above that has to be funded by the local district. By 2022, at least 15.5% of students in Seattle Public Schools were receiving special education services.
The consequences of this failure to fund special education are numerous. In addition to fueling a strike last fall, as SPS claimed it did not have enough money to properly fund a transition to a more inclusive model of delivering special education services, districts across the state have had to outsource their special education services.
In some cases, they turned to Northwest SOIL, whose appalling and abusive practices were documented in a recent series by ProPublica and the Seattle Times. Other families have had to send their children out of state to receive services the state will not pay districts to provide here in Washington. The US Department of Education is also investigating SPS's failure to provide special education services.
How To Get Out of This Mess
Legislators have yet to propose their budgets for 2023-25. Governor Inslee has, and his proposal includes $120 million for special education funding. But that's not going to be enough to cover the full costs of providing those services, and it maintains a cap on special education funding at 15% of students. (In Chimacum, for example, more than 16% of students receive special education services.) More importantly, his proposal does not address the larger structural problems with the 2017 education funding plan. Solving special education funding woes is necessary but not sufficient.
Although the 2017 education funding plan was developed with bipartisan support, it fared poorly among the Seattle delegation. Many Seattle Democratic legislators heeded the call of education advocates and voted against EHB 2242, including every State Senator representing a Seattle district.
Despite this strong show of opposition at the time, Seattle's legislative delegation has not shown leadership toward fixing the numerous flaws in that 2017 education funding plan. So far, none of them have stepped up this year to propose solutions that would eliminate the staggering deficit facing Seattle Public Schools and other districts.
For reasons that remain unclear, the Democratic majority in Olympia remains wedded to an education funding system designed in large part by Republicans, that fails our public schools, and continues to reinforce inequities.
There is also a political urgency to Democrats taking action here in 2023. This is a "long" legislative session in which the biennial budget will be adopted, and the next biennial budget adoption will be in 2025. It is easier for the Democratic majority to adopt major changes to the tax system this year, when their re-election next year coincides with a high-turnout presidential election, than it will be in 2025 a year before a midterm election and the political uncertainty that it brings.
So what should Democrats be doing to solve the public education funding crisis? They can slash the state property tax, replace it with a wealth tax and expanded capital gains tax, and use that to fund public schools instead. It could bring in billions of dollars more for K-12 public schools while also helping reduce housing costs and make our tax code a bit less regressive.
The alternatives are dire. If districts are forced to make big cuts, it will merely accelerate flight away from public schools toward private options. In turn, this will cause further deficits, lead to more teacher layoffs, program cuts, and even school closures—all of which will drive even more families to leave the public schools.
Democratic leaders and the Seattle delegation in particular need pressure to change course, starting right now at the beginning of their 2023 session. Please take a moment, contact your legislators, and tell them to tax the rich to save our public schools.
Robert Cruickshank is president of Washington’s Paramount Duty and a parent of three children in Seattle Public Schools.