October 28, 2002
It's time for an 'Education Legislature'
by Mark W. Berry
Recent threatened and actual teacher strikes in local school districts highlighted a growing disconnect between the wishes and expectations of the citizens of Washington and the Washington Legislature. Voters have consistently expressed a desire to increase funding for education. The Legislature has not paid attention.
Even as Washington voters have supported initiatives to reduce taxes and limit spending, they have made clear they are willing to pay more for education. In 2000, voters approved two measures strongly supportive of education. Initiative 728 required funding to reduce class sizes. Initiative 732 mandated that teachers would receive at least a cost-of-living increase each year. Both passed by wide margins; Initiative 728 received 72% support, the highest of any Washington initiative.
In addition, nearly every school levy or bond presented to the voters in the last 15 years has been approved by a majority of the voters. (Our system requires that any school revenue measure receive 60% support and be "validated" by a sufficient number of voters. Even with these "supermajority" requirements, most school measures have passed. Many received over 70% support.) No other public institution can boast such consistent and strong public support.
In national and state-wide polls, citizens continually identify education as the highest governmental priority and the highest area for concern.
Not only are voters demonstrating a strong commitment to education, our laws compel it. The Washington Constitution states, "It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders." ("Paramount;" adj. "superior to all others," Webster's Third International Dictionary.) In 1975, this Constitutional provision led the Washington Supreme Court to require the Legislature to adequately fund Washington's education needs.
Despite the voters' consistent support and the fact that education is "the paramount duty" of the State, the Legislature has not paid attention. The Legislature never fully funded Initiatives 728 and 732, instead subjecting education to deep cuts. In fact, the State's share of education funding is nearly back to the level the Supreme Court found inadequate and unconstitutional in 1975!
Furthermore, the Legislature has continued to limit school districts' abilities to raise additional revenue. In the last session, an effort to repeal the "supermajority" requirement Ñ and allow education to be funded on a majority vote like sports stadia Ñ failed to pass the State House by one vote. In addition, while the State's contribution to education has decreased, the Legislature has rejected any effort to alter the 24% levy lid (meaning that school districts remain limited to providing 24% of their total educational costs). Thus, when state funding fails to match the increase in education costs (leading to a net decline), local districts' collections must decline as well. As a result, because the State failed to fully fund education in the last session, the Northshore School District could not collect all of the taxes its voters had approved last February.
No wonder educators and voters are frustrated.What can we do? Rallying in Olympia or lobbying the Legislature is not enough. Competing budgetary demands and the knee-jerk reaction of some against any revenue increase (and even allowing the voters the chance to vote on any proposal to alter existing tax structures) will stymie any hope of progress.
Rather, it is time to elect a Legislature that will make education a priority and deliver the State's promise that education is the paramount duty of the State. As a friend closely involved in Washington's legislative process recently said, "If those who are supportive of education became single issue voters for just one election, our entire system of funding education can be dramatically altered and improved."
Most candidates will state that they support education. But, the fact is that that any candidate who promises both "quality schools" and "lower taxes" is lying about one of them.
We must ask the candidates (and review their web-sites) for their answers to the real questions: (1) Do you support elimination of the "supermajority" requirements for school levies and bonds?; (2) Do you support fully funding Initiatives 728 and 732?; (3) When the state budget must be cut next year, must education bear some of the cuts and how much?; (4) Are you willing to support any type of revenue increase to better fund education? If so, what type of increase and under what circumstances? and (5) Will you vote to raise the levy lid to permit school districts to increase their own funding?
The majority of Washington voters clearly support properly and fully funding education. We must join together now and elect representatives who share our expectations and will make education paramount.
Mark Berry is a parent in the Northshore School District.