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 23 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.

Adjacent posts

One reply on “How to meet Washington’s paramount duty and end the K‑12 funding standoff”

  1. Well I got pret­ty tired of sit­ting around wait­ing for things to set­tle down. My kid’s teacher sug­gest­ed that I go to the munch­math web­site and get a tutor because there just was­n’t enough fund­ing to get tutor­ing in school and it has giv­en me a lot of peace of mind. These guys are just not going to get it togeth­er in the leg­is­la­ture it’s real­ly dis­ap­point­ing. As usu­al par­ents like me get the short end of the stick.

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