From L to R: Kathryn Russell Selk and Summer Stinson
From L to R: Kathryn Russell Selk and Summer Stinson Courtesy of the authors

Seattle is one of the many school districts across the state that are facing budget deficits that shouldn’t exist.

Last June, with a government shutdown looming, our state’s legislature enacted a new education funding system. Crafted at the last minute, behind closed doors and without public comment, legislators promised the plan was a victory for the state’s 1.1 million public school kids. Those who voted for it claimed the new system would finally fully fund public K-12 education across the state and satisfy the state’s Supreme Court in the decade-long McCleary education funding case. We were told that the state would no longer accrue $100,000 per day in contempt sanctions for violating the constitutional rights of our kids.

Before the ink was dry on the “plan,” the governor—and most of Washington’s media—were echoing these claims. Within days, we learned the plan came at the cost of the largest property tax increase in the history of our state. Within a month, several school districts were sounding the alarm.

Locally, Seattle Public Schools staff discovered that the district is worse off financially under the new scheme. In 2020-21, SPS expects to have $92 less per student per year than today. Instead of “amply” funding the actual costs of basic education, as the constitution requires, the new plan leaves SPS with a $5.5 million deficit for next school year, an $11.8 million deficit the following year, $24.2 million in 2020-21 and exponential growth projected every year afterward. At the same time, Seattle residents will pay more for education, courtesy of huge new property tax bills.

SPS is not alone in sounding the alarm. Tacoma’s district estimates losing $151 per student per year. Klickitat estimates a loss of about 8 percent of its entire operating budget. Across the state, many of the smaller districts which have relied on high levies to fund basics will get less, not more, funding for education under the brand new “plan.”

In reality, the legislature failed. The Supreme Court must save us now. They're our only hope.

In the McCleary decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Washington Constitution requires the state, as its paramount duty, to amply fund the actual costs of basic education for every child from regular and dependable tax sources. The McCleary plaintiffs and many nonprofit groups reviewed and analyzed the hastily-passed budget and found that the plan did not live up to the state’s constitutional promise.

Together, we worked pro bono (for free) and filed an amicus (friend of the Court) brief in McCleary, on behalf of Washington’s Paramount Duty, a grassroots organization advocating for full funding for all our state’s public schools. In our brief, we explain how the new education funding plan is not ample, doesn’t cover the actual costs to run schools, does not provide for every child, and does not rely on regular and dependable tax sources.

Among those who also crunched the numbers and found the state’s plan highly wanting are the NAACP, Chinese Information Service Center, Multicultural Education Rights Alliance, United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, and the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition. They also filed a brief in McCleary, raising stark concerns about how the last-minute “plan” shortchanges funding for learning assistance, bilingual instruction, and smaller class sizes.

The ARC of Washington State, Washington Autism Alliance & Advocacy, Open Doors for Multicultural Families, Seattle Special Education PTSA, and several other groups, filed a brief in McCleary pointing out how the new “plan” undercuts funding for special education in significant, destructive ways.

Some legislators themselves are declaring the new system flawed. Sen. Jamie Pedersen, Rep. Laurie Jinkins and Rep. Gerry Pollet joined the Washington Budget and Policy Center and Equity in Education Coalition to file a brief noting that the legislature's deal will actually cause the state property tax rate to decline starting in 2022. This will widen the gap between the costs of basic education and the property tax revenue that supports basic education.

The Budget & Policy Center’s calculations also show the gap increasing to at least $25 billion within ten years, much of it hitting our most vulnerable kids hardest. They are also raising red flags about how this plan will likely harm students of color.

These are not the only problems with the new “plan.” The state constitution requires regular and dependable sources of paying for education. This means new, progressive revenue streams—capital gains, cutting business tax loopholes, or even an income tax, if you’re feeling bold. 

State legislators shied away from those tools. Instead they simply moved money around in a slightly modified version of the so-called "levy swap" promoted by Senate Republicans and their allies at the Washington Roundtable. The result is far less money than needed to bring our aging, crumbling school system up to speed after years of savage underfunding.

It increasingly appears that the legislature’s education funding plan is really a hard, low spending cap for our public schools. The legislature defined “full funding” at the lowest amount possible, provides only that amount and then prevents local districts from doing more. And now legislators are urging the Issaquah School District to cut back on its levy request to voters. 

Across the state, without billions more in state funding, districts will be faced with more cuts to teachers, nurses, classes, and more. And all are cutting from districts which have had to slash costs for years or, if they are lucky, ask parents with resources to fill in the gaps.

The legislature also failed to address racial equity—both in the sources of funding and how it is spent. By socking residents with a regressive property tax increase, the legislature maintains a tax system that taxes our richest residents, who are mostly white, at a much lower percentage than our poorest residents, who are disproportionately people of color. 

Our smaller rural districts need our support for their children at risk as do our urban districts, as we see a huge increase in homeless kids across the state. All school districts need more money, but some need a lot more.

Despite the mounting evidence, many in the media still parrot the initial, rosy-glassed claims. For example, the Stranger fell for this on October 11 in its endorsement article when it declared, "on June 30, Washington State legislators hastily passed a last-minute budget, which included a plan to fully fund state public schools to comply with the Washington State Supreme Court's 2012 McCleary ruling." That was certainly the talking point in early July. But since then, many, many voices in our schools have challenged that claim.

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It’s up to the Supreme Court to decide what happens next. In our brief, we ask the Court to find the state in continuing contempt. We urge the Court to take decisive action, well within its power and authority, and order suspension of the state’s 700 legislatively-enacted tax exemptions unless the legislature finally meets its constitutional obligations by March 15, 2018. 

Both the state and the McCleary plaintiffs will present their arguments about the new plan to the Supreme Court on October 24. We’ll be in the courtroom, too—joined by hundreds of parents and educators. We hope the Court will see through the hype, look at the hard numbers and refuse to play along with the state once again failing to amply fund Washington’s public schools.

This post has been updated with correct figures regarding the education funding gap.