Northwest NEWS

February 1, 1999


Guest Editorial

Public schools: Let the people decide

by Cal Chase, President, Washington State School Directors' Association and member of the Tekoa School Board

   As the state legislative session of 1999 begins, we are reminded of the fact, based upon current revenue projections and our state's spending limitation law, that there is very little new money available to help our state's public schools. If that is true and if newly-elected legislators who campaigned on a theme to improve education are now searching for less-costly ways to enact their election promises, there is one simple and fair proposal available to them: allow local school levies and bonds to be approved by a majority vote, rather than the archaic 60% requirement enacted 50 years ago.

   Two case studies should be examined. First, Pierce County voters recently decided a new jail was needed. After voters rejected a property tax ballot measure to build the jail, requiring a 60% approval, they later passed a sales tax increase to pay for the project's construction. Now the Pierce County Council recognizes that the cost of operating this new jail will exceed its current revenues. However, the Council itself can vote to increase those operational revenues (property taxes) without a vote of the people.

   Meanwhile, just down I-5 in the Tumwater School District, local voters similarly realized that a new high school was needed to accommodate student enrollment growth. The only available mechanism to build a new school was a public vote on a property tax measure requiring 60% approval. However difficult, the voters agreed. The school district then realized (much like Pierce County) that the cost of operating this new facility would exceed its current revenues. Their only available option, again, was a school levy--on property taxes--requiring, again, a 60% vote of the people. After an unnecessarily difficult election, the Tumwater voters approved.

   Our state Constitution declares it is the state's "paramount duty" to make "ample provision" for public schools. And yet our laws make it easier to build and operate jails than to build and operate schools. This doesn't make sense. It is time for our state Constitution to be amended to allow school levies and bonds to be approved by a simple majority vote (50% plus one).

   The state Constitution cannot be changed by the Legislature. Neither can it be amended by a citizen-driven initiative. Constitutional amendments must be initiated by the State Legislature, requiring a two-thirds vote of both the State House of Representatives and the State Senate; then the proposed amendment would need the approval of the state's voters, ironically by a simple 50% vote.

   Why don't legislators allow the people the ability to amend their own Constitution on this seemingly fair proposal? Their reasons are many and varied. Some believe that increased passage of school levies would lead to a "property tax revolt." If that fear is valid, the voters would surely reject the simple majority proposal or the school levies themselves.

   Others believe that school levies should be voted upon only at a November general election, rather then at one of the traditional four election dates in the spring. And yet the Legislature recently allowed a statewide vote for a Seattle professional football stadium on a June election date. Some legislators believe that school levies are the way to "hold schools accountable." True accountability should be based upon results (student achievement) and should be the responsibility for elected officials (who can be replaced by the voters), rather than by the tumultuous and intermittent approval or defeat of revenue proposals.

   There is apparently little revenue available for the 1999 Legislature to increase dramatically the funding of our public schools. There is also little desire to amend the state's spending limitation, Initiative 601, considered a mandate by the people. And yet I-601 was approved by 51% of the voters in 1993. That vote would be a massive failure for a local school levy, requiring 60%.

   The vast majority of school levies pass year after year--by a 60% vote--on a property tax. This shows remarkable citizen support for their public schools. But why must citizens hold schools, the state's "paramount duty," to a higher approval threshold than jails, or stadiums, or museums, or other responsible civic desires?

   If legislators really consider public schools their highest priority, and if state revenues really are not available in 1999 to make dramatic improvements in school funding, and if legislators are not willing to amend I-601 (by exempting schools from the spending limits imposed by 51% of the voters), cannot the Legislature at least propose a Constitutional amendment to the voters of Washington--to see if citizens believe the 60% requirement for schools is fair?

   That's all we ask: Let the people decide.