Today Governor Jay Inslee convenes the first meeting of his legislative workgroup in SeaTac to tackle the issue of how to meet the state Supreme Court’s order to fully fund K‑12 public schools. It’s good that they’re getting down to work, but we shouldn’t expect a quick resolution.
The Washington Legislature is deadlocked over the question of not only how to meet the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision — some Republicans are even suggesting the legislature should not attempt to try. It’s an impasse that wasn’t broken during three special sessions in the spring. Calling a new special session is necessary but in itself it won’t produce change — not until the people of the Evergreen State mobilize and force a solution onto the legislature.
In order to break the stalemate, we must first understand the reasons why it exists, and then build a strategy around those facts. What we’re seeing in Olympia is the same phenomenon operating in Washington, D.C. — Democrats and Republicans have fundamentally different and nearly unbridgeable differences about how to educate our children, including how to pay for it.
Let’s take a closer look at the situation, starting with the Republicans.
Do Republicans even want to solve the problem?
The primary obstacle to meeting the McCleary mandate is the Washington State Republican Party. Though they differ on how to handle the Supreme Court’s order requiring the legislature to fully fund K‑12 public schools, they do agree that the state should not raise any new revenues to fully fund K‑12 public schools, and have spent decades fighting against efforts to do so.
Republicans control the State Senate, and most of them have denounced the State Supreme Court for their recent order fining the legislature $100,000 per day until they comply with the McCleary decision, claiming it is “unconstitutional.” Several Republicans have even called for impeaching the Supreme Court over the issue.
Not every Republican in the State Senate signed that letter of denunciation. A few Eastside Republicans, like Joe Fain, Andy Hill, and Steve Litzow pointedly left their names off the letter. But that doesn’t mean those particular Republicans, all vulnerable to Democratic challengers in their districts that lean blue, are willing to raise the $3.5 billion in funds needed to meet the minimum McCleary mandate.
After all, the root of the state’s education funding woes lies in tax cuts delivered in the 1990s by Republican legislators, along with a few conservative Democrats. The 1997 bill to exempt “intangible property” from taxation took billions of dollars a year from schools in order to benefit companies like Microsoft.
Republicans prefer a solution known as the “levy swap.” The idea here would be that the state raises its property tax in exchange for getting rid of local levies. In practice this would be a massive property tax increase in cities like Seattle while cutting property taxes in a place like Puyallup. However, this would also leave Seattle schools with less money. While there does need to be an end to local districts having to use levies to pay for basic education services, this levy swap is a terrible solution for our schools and kids.
Republicans will not come around simply by trying to convince them our arguments are correct. That’s now how the modern Republican Party works. If you look at how they operate in Congress, or the “clown car” that is the Republican presidential candidate field, you’ll see that this is a party that is driven by the right-wing extremists and wealthy interests. Any Republican who votes to raise taxes will face the loss of campaign funding, will likely face a challenger from the right, and will likely see the end of their political careers. Today’s Republican Party is structured to be as extreme as possible, and they have shown they will punish those party members who stray from their orthodoxy.
Further, Washington Republicans believe they will take total control of the state legislature, and perhaps even the governor’s office, in 2016, making it unnecessary for them to reach an agreement now. They will stall as long as they can, believing that any delay or standoff makes Democrats look bad, rather than undermining their own cause.
As we’ll note below, however, they are still vulnerable to massive and sustained public pressure, which so far they have not had to face.
A deal may be possible, but at what price?
It is possible that some Senate Republicans could be convinced to support a capital gains tax or some other method to add new funds to our public schools. But in return, they would almost certainly demand Democrats agree to numerous policy changes that they have so far resisted. Jordan Schrader of the Tacoma News Tribune has some insight as to what Republicans are likely to demand:
[State Sen. Doug] Ericksen said he wants the group to talk about how to “fundamentally restructure many of the elements of education,” restricting local collective bargaining, rethinking layers of administration and perhaps even following Nevada’s lead by offering more school choice. Nevada lets parents use public money for private schools or other educational alternatives.
He said the state needs to make changes that will improve test scores and disagrees that $3.5 billion is needed. “The easy narrative for people to talk about is, of course, hey, we need more money,” Ericksen said. “I think it goes much deeper than that.”
Many of these policies are popular with the right and with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Sen. Ericksen has ties to ALEC, so this should come as no surprise.
What exactly will Republicans demand? Let’s take a closer look:
• “restricting local collective bargaining” — This would likely eliminate the ability of teachers to bargain with local school districts, instead imposing a single statewide contract. It could also mean preventing teachers from bargaining anything other than wages or benefits. Indiana recently passed such a law, which had it existed in Washington State, would have prevented Seattle teachers from bargaining over things like more recess time and less standardized testing. This would be a big blow to local control over schools, ignoring variations in cost of living and parental preferences about how their kids should be taught.
• “rethinking layers of administration” — This appears to refer to changes in school governance. Earlier this year several proposals were floated in the state legislature to either allow mayoral appointments of Seattle school board members, or cut the Seattle school district in half. This could also be a reference to state takeovers of schools, or a state-created school district like Tennessee’s controversial Achievement School District.
• “offering more school choice” — This is partly about charter schools, as most Republicans oppose the Supreme Court’s recent decision that found Initiative 1240 to be unconstitutional. They want to find a way for charter schools to continue receiving public funds. But Sen. Ericksen is also referring to voucher programs, which parents could use at other private schools and at religious schools. It’s hard to see how any such plan would pass muster at the Supreme Court, and Washington voters have opposed vouchers in the past, but Republicans seem intent on making it part of the negotiations.
One other policy change that Republicans could demand is a bill tying teacher evaluations to student test scores. Although Washington parents oppose this, as it has the effect of turning the classroom into test prep, Senate Republicans have tried to get the House Democrats to agree to the bill with little success. They might use it as leverage for reaching a deal on K‑12 funding.
Will the Democrats unite around progressive revenues?
Republicans narrowly control the State Senate, but Democrats narrowly hold the State House and, of course, the governor’s office. Their role here will be decisive, but it remains to be seen whether Democrats will step up and make fully funding Washington’s paramount duty their reason for being.
Republicans like to score points by pointing out that Democrats had sole control of state government during the Gregoire years and yet failed to properly fund K‑12 schools. Democrats did miss that opportunity, and Gregoire surely bears a lot of responsibility for the current crisis.
But Republicans neglect to mention that if they had been in power, they would have made matters even worse. Their candidate for governor in 2004 and 2008, Dino Rossi, pledged to cut taxes and cap spending which would have forced huge cuts to public school budgets.
Because so many Republicans are opposed to taking action, it falls to Democrats to step up and lead the effort within the legislature to raise the revenue needed. Governor Inslee and House Democrats have both proposed a capital gains tax on the wealthiest Washingtonians to help meet the Supreme Court order. House Democrats later dropped the capital gains tax, at least temporarily, in order to reach a deal with Republicans to get a budget done, but both they and the governor remain on record in support of a capital gains tax.
Seattle Democrats have called for $3.5 billion in new revenue but stopped short of endorsing any one particular funding solution, instead saying “there is no single magic bullet.”
Other Democrats in more vulnerable seats have been hesitant to make a full-throated case for meeting Washington’s paramount duty, afraid of a backlash to new taxes. Recent electoral losses have left some Democrats scared and hesitant. But doing so is the best way for them to secure their own political futures, as well as doing what is right for our kids.
So given the underlying reasons for the impasse, how can parents and community activists in Washington State take action to make sure our schools are fully funded? Here are some ideas:
Stop Tim Eyman. Right-wing initiative proponent Tim Eyman has an awful new initiative on the November 2015 ballot, Initiative 1366. If it passes, it will cut $1 billion in funding from our schools. The legislature could only restore that money by agreeing to write a rule requiring a 2⁄3 vote for any tax increase into the state constitution. Doing so would give the far right a veto over any new revenue and make it impossible to ever fully fund our schools. Worse, if I‑1366 passes, legislators might take it as a sign that voters don’t want new taxes. But if we defeat it, we show the legislature that voters are tired of anti-tax rhetoric undermining our schools.
Stopping Tim Eyman and defeating I‑1366 is essential to meeting the McCleary mandate. We need to get Democrats in Seattle and King County to flock to the polls and make sure this goes down to defeat.
Organize in support of specific solutions — like a capital gains tax. It’s not enough for a special session to be called, because under current circumstances it’ll just be a prolonged standoff. We must organize around specific solutions and fight hard for them to be adopted — otherwise we’ll just see the legislature spin their wheels.
In fact, if our sole demand to the legislature is “make a deal” then we might get something worse: Republicans agree to a revenue deal but attach awful policy changes that make education worse, such as school vouchers or tying teacher evaluations to test scores.
A capital gains tax on the wealthiest Washingtonians is one obvious solution. It not only has the support of Governor Inslee and most Democrats, it also has strong support around the state. Even the notoriously anti-tax Seattle Times endorsed it as the “best option to fund education.”
As the Washington State Budget and Policy Center has shown, the capital gains tax plan would raise much of the revenue needed to meet the remaining McCleary obligation and do so in a sustainable way. It will have to be a central part of any solution.
Another possible option is reversing the 1997 bill that exempted “intangible property” from the state’s tax code. Closing this corporate tax loophole would create as much as $4 billion a year in new funds for schools.
Rally the suburbs. The key legislators to swing to support new revenue without attaching policy changes are all from the King County suburbs, including Republicans. As described above, Republicans in particular face numerous political obstacles to supporting the necessary new revenues even if they personally wanted to do so. But the one thing that can overcome those obstacles is pressure from the public. Even if and when Seattle legislators take the lead on pushing for a solution, it will take suburban votes to pass any plan. Those legislators need to know that their constituents demand a solution that includes new revenues, without making those revenues conditional on unwanted policy changes.
Support Carol Gregory in the 30th Legislative District. Speaking of suburban legislators, a crucial race for the State House is happening in Federal Way this fall. Democrat and Federal Way school board member Carol Gregory was appointed to fill a vacancy last December, and is now defending that seat in a special election against Republican Teri Hickel. Gregory supports a capital gains tax, which Hickel opposes.
If the Republican wins, it will become much more difficult to convince legislators to raise the necessary revenues to fulfill the Supreme Court’s McCleary order.
In order to fulfill Washington’s paramount duty, we need to change the political landscape that created this crisis in the first place. The fight over education funding is how we make that change happen.