Education Funding: The State in Contempt

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State Supreme CourtYesterday the Washington State Supreme Court found the State in continued contempt of the Court’s order to provide full funding for education. Good for the Court! “Ample provision for the education of all children” is the State’s “paramount duty” according to the Washington State Constitution.

The Supreme Court imposed monetary sanctions for the first time: a fine of $100,000 a day until the State adopts a plan for full compliance. Leaders of the State Legislature are meeting Monday to discuss the work ahead.

Here is the conclusion of the Court’s order:

“Given the gravity of the State’s ongoing violation of its constitutional obligation to amply provide for public education, and in light of the need for expeditious action, the time has come for the court to impose sanctions. A monetary sanction is appropriate to emphasize the cost to the children, indeed to all of the people of this state, for every day the State fails to adopt a plan for full compliance with article IX, section 1 [of the State Constitution]. At the same time, this sanction is less intrusive than other available options, including directing the means the State must use to come into compliance with the court’s order.”

The order discusses in further detail the Legislature’s attempts to fund smaller class sizes in grades K-3 and questions their adequacy. It specifically highlights the funding needed for personnel costs (more teachers) and capital expenditures (more physical classrooms) necessary to meet the goal of an average class size of 17 students for these early grades.

Schools in Washington are funded by State property taxes, but many local school districts (including the Seattle School District) request supplemental property tax levies from voters for both operating and capital expenses.

I hope leaders at the State Legislature take this opportunity to reevaluate Washington’s tax structure. We currently rely on sales tax, property tax, and a corporate income tax on gross income (the business and occupation tax). It is the worst state tax structure in the nation. The sales and property taxes are regressive measures that unduly burden those with lower incomes; the corporate income tax on gross revenue just doesn’t make much sense.

When the State Legislature acts to put more revenue into education, new revenue sources should be considered. Instead of expanding our current unfair tax structure, the State should begin a serious conversation about instituting an income tax. As I’ve written before, an income tax would give us a tax system that is fair, stable, transparent, and adequate to meet the pressing (and growing) needs of our state. Low-income families would pay much less in taxes, the middle class would pay about the same, and our wealthiest neighbors would pay more.

Why do I write about this as a City Councilmember?

In Seattle, City government also plays a role in the funding of education. The Families and Education Levy provides additional educational supports (including health programs) in Seattle Public Schools. Seattle voters also recently decided to raise their property taxes to launch the Seattle Preschool Program, which will make high-quality preschool available and affordable to thousands of Seattle’s children. As we learn more about the importance of early education, I believe we should take a serious look at redefining a basic education to include at least one year of high-quality preschool, so our K-12 system would become to Pre-K through 12.

The City has a direct stake in making sure all of Seattle’s children have a fair and strong start. Providing an excellent education is central to this goal.