The state’s Chief Republican budget writer says every school in the state would come out ahead under the Senate Majority Caucus’s proposed 2018-19 state budget, but educators and House Democrats disagree.
“Everybody pays the same rate and everybody gets the same funding for students,” said Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, who represents parts of Cowlitz and Lewis counties.
Cowlitz County property owners would see their property taxes decrease significantly under the GOP plan, he said.
Legislators have been under the gun trying to create a budget this session that fulfills the Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision, which requires the state to fully fund basic education.
Across the state, local districts have been helping foot the bill for basic expenses such as teacher salaries, bilingual education and special education through local voter-approved levies. Under the Senate plan, the school levy rate would become a uniform $1.55 per $1,000 of assessed property value for every district − reducing rates in about 83 percent of districts around the state.
Longview residents currently pay $3.31 per $1,000, while Kelso residents pay $4.07.
The $1.55 rate would mean increases in “property rich” areas that can collect more money from higher-value property areas, like Bellevue, Seattle and Mercer Island. For example, Seattle homeowners currently pay only $1.22 per $1,000.
Under the Senate GOP budget, local maintenance and operations levies would “go away” beginning in 2019. Starting in 2020, the plan would allow for “enhancement levies,” which would still be voter-approved. But there are “two big differences,” Braun said.
“Before they go to the voters, the school has to put together a plan about how they’re going to use the money,” Braun said Thursday. “They have to show that they have a specific plan that is for non-basic education.”
The limit of these enhancement levies would be 10 percent of what that district receives in state funding, a rollback to the 10 percent cap that was first implemented in the 1980 Levy Lid Act.
The majority of districts are currently allowed to collect levies for up to 28 percent of their operating budget, and a third of districts in the state have higher, “grandfathered” levy rates between 28.01 percent and 37.9 percent.
The plan would also require school districts to keep any levy money they do raise in separate accounts from state money.
“It seems kind of odd when you think how sophisticated accounting is in today’s world that the school district’s don’t account for state and local money separately,” Braun said. That requirement is coupled with stricter auditing policies, to ensure that districts aren’t using local money for basic education.
Other aspects of the plan have teachers unions worried. Under the plan, the voter-approved grade 4 through 12 class size reduction initiative would be repealed, as well as another initiative that provided teachers with cost-of-living salary adjustments. Class size reductions for kindergarten through third grade, approved in 2010, would remain in place.
Teachers salaries would be increased, to $54,000 and $59,000 respectively for teachers with bachelor’s and advanced degrees by 2018-19.
Kim Mead, chairwoman of the Washington Education Association (the state teachers’ union) testified against the budget Tuesday.
“The Senate budget fails to keep our Constitutional promise to our children, and it does not comply with the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision,” Mead said in prepared remarks. Mead cited the elimination of class size reductions, reductions in special education funding and elimination of voter-approved teacher cost-of-living adjustments as some of the most glaring issues.
Under the Senate GOP’s plan, instead of varying levels of per-student expenditures across the state, each district would receive a $10,200 per-pupil by the 2019-20 school year. The state would provide an additional $500 would be provided to districts for each career and technical education student and $1,500 per unsheltered homeless student. Districts would also receive $7,500 for every student in special education on top of the base amount.
The Senate’s plan doesn’t involve any new taxes, unlike Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed carbon tax, capital gains tax and business and operations tax. Instead, on top of the property tax equalization, the plan cuts funding for a variety of programs, including eliminating bonuses for teachers with National Board Certification, reducing funding for the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program and reductions for homeless programs and services (almost $100 million over four years).
“Our promise this year was to deliver a state budget that didn’t rely on new taxes and full funds a K through 12 system that’s going to cost us $7 billion over four years,” Braun said. “We went through the budget line by line − where are we best spending state money?”
House Appropriations chairman Timm Ormsby, a Spokane Democrat, announced Tuesday that the House Democrats will unveil their budget and school funding plan next week.
“In the coming days we will introduce a budget that represents the values of this Washington by helping working families, fully funding K-12 schools, continuing to fix our mental health system, closing the opportunity gap and supporting at-risk youth,” Ormsby said.
Note: An earlier version of this story said the plan would roll back voter-approved class size reduction initiatives. Specifically, the plan would eliminate I-1351, an initiative that called for class size reductions in grades 4 through 12. Kindergarten through third grade class size reductions would remain in place.