On February 12th Seattle voters will decide if they want to renew two levies that are critical for Seattle Public Schools to avoid massive cuts. If they pass, many schools across the city will get badly needed renovations. The district will be able to provide smaller class sizes, more nurses and counselors, updated textbooks, and other supports to ensure that every child gets a good education.
A levy failure will mean teacher layoffs, program cuts, and schools like Rainier Beach High School not getting rebuilt. As is always the case, the brunt of a levy failure will be borne by the kids whose families have the least financial means.
Unfortunately, the Seattle Times’ editorial board is waging an irresponsible disinformation campaign against Seattle’s school levies. They are trying to mislead voters into thinking that voting for these levies would somehow make education funding less equitable.
First of all, that’s a rich critique coming from the Times, which has a track record of wanting to limit public school funding. Their most recent editorial claimed it was “galling” that teachers got pay increases in last year’s bargaining. But teachers are struggling to make ends meet in an increasingly unaffordable city, sometimes even working two or three jobs.
The Times also misleads readers by claiming local levies are only for things like sports and after-school programs. But Seattle Public Schools uses these levies to cover many other crucial services that the state does not fully fund, including special education, transportation, and safe buildings—to name a few.
The general ploy here is that the Times wants to maintain the spending cap on public schools that the legislature created in 2017, which is causing huge deficits for our schools. This may be because the Seattle Times’ ed board has a right-wing ideology of opposition to new taxes. This attitude allows the Times to oppose new taxes while pushing a faulty argument that public schools are failing and privately-run charter schools deserve support.
Here's the truth: Instead of fully funding the basic needs of teachers and children in our classrooms, the state decided to play a bunch of semantic and legal games in order to weasel out of their constitutional duty. Just as the striking teachers in Los Angeles are highlighting, starving public schools creates a funding crisis, allowing business and charter-school proponents to further privatize our public school system.
The McCleary case was brought by a family on the Olympic Peninsula because their local levies kept failing. They argued, correctly, that the state should be funding public education for every child in Washington. The Supreme Court agreed and ordered the state to do so. Republicans openly thwarted the Supreme Court's orders to fully fund public schools; some Democrats preferred to ignore them.
Lawmakers on both sides eventually pursued a levy swipe: a strategy of using the McCleary case to increase state property taxes, while at the same time putting a cap on local public school levies. The court order did not require any limits on local levies, but Republicans demanded them and Democrats caved. The state's largest corporations and the Seattle Times’ editorial board supported this plan, even though it meant districts like Seattle and Tacoma would lose tens of millions of essential dollars each year.
The legislature also changed that way the state pays districts for teacher salaries in order to keep wages down. The “average” teacher-pay formula they adopted punishes districts that hire experienced teachers by not paying the full teachers’ salaries. One Washington school district superintendent is concerned that this formula encourages age discrimination by favoring the hiring of less-experienced—and often, younger—educators. This new formula was part of a political deal, and it harms numerous school districts—both large and small.
In 2017, Republicans threatened to shut down the government unless Democrats agreed to these proposals, and Democrats capitulated, after some minor modifications were made. Therefore, the legislature's 2017 education funding plan was not designed with the needs of our children in mind. It was a compromise between Republicans and Democrats designed to keep taxes low.
One part of this flawed deal was that the state defined "basic education" in an absurdly narrow way that does not come anywhere close to meeting our public schools’ needs. Districts still do not have enough money from the state for classroom basics, including fair teacher salaries, textbooks, nurses, counselors, and more.
The results are tragic. For example, at Northgate Elementary, the school with the highest rate of kids on free and reduced lunch in Seattle, the state only funds part of the cost of a librarian, a counselor, and someone to meet students’ health and social service needs. The state claimed this fulfills their "basic education" requirement. But for each school to actually have a librarian or a nurse, the district has to come up with the rest of the funds. As a result, the state currently funds only 9 nurses for the over 100 schools in Seattle.
The Times admits this is a problem. But they consistently oppose efforts at the state or local level to solve it. Their concern is that if Seattle voters give their schools more money, the state will have to do the same for other schools in order to promote equity. But that is exactly what the legislature must do.
We should not and must not be bound by what the legislature did in 2017. Their bad decisions must be fixed. We must insist on a funding model that actually works for our kids. The legislature still has not funded the basic operations and needs of our schools. We will continue to advocate that they do so with new, progressive revenue such as the capital gains tax Governor Jay Inslee proposed. As long as there are still unmet needs in our classrooms, we need to support local levies when they are proposed.
Property taxes are not the best solution, but they are the only revenue source the state has allowed school districts to request. That said, these levies do not increase the property tax rate in Seattle.
Please share this with every parent and voter you know in Seattle so they can understand the truth about public school funding and the truth about Seattle's levy proposals. And join us in advocating that the state finally and fully fund our public schools with new, progressive revenue.
Summer Stinson is the President and Robert Cruickshank is the Secretary of Washington’s Paramount Duty, a grassroots group of parents and allies advocating for the state to amply fund public schools with progressive new revenue. Both are parents of kids in or entering Seattle Public Schools.