NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Thursday, September 24th, 2015

How to meet Washington’s paramount duty and end the K‑12 funding standoff

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.

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One Comment

  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.

    # by James Dixon :: September 24th, 2015 at 9:17 PM