Opinion

Seeking a principled basis for school funding

Since several years of fundamental reforms lie ahead for public schools, the South Kitsap School District administration and residents living within the district should prepare by considering what principles they hold dear.

The recent state supreme court opinion acknowledged the need for fundamental reform as part of its rationale for deferring to the Legislature’s responsibility to choose what to do.

Having determined that the state had not been adequately funding “basic education,” the court stated: “Pouring more money into an outmoded system will not succeed.”

Providing more money from state revenues rather than local excess levies is obviously a part of the solution, but not necessarily all the solution.

The Legislature has already begun to reform the state’s school funding system by changing the basis for determining what the state will provide, having previously based its calculations largely on what school districts were spending 35 years ago.

The problem with the previous approach is that school districts differed in their spending then just as they differ now — but not always because costs of providing essentially the same educational opportunities differed.

The differences in spending often resulted from differences in the districts’ tax bases and ability to raise revenue using local excess levies.

If there is to be a uniform system of public schools that provides ample funding for the education of all children in the state, differences resulting from differing ability

to raise local revenue must be eliminated to the ex-tent they can be.

Achieving uniformity in educational opportunity isn’t the same as providing uniform funding regardless of circumstances, but irrational funding differences surely conflict with the principle of providing a uniform school system.

If we hold dear the principle that children in this state have a right to a basic education without regard to their location, then every proposed reform must be examined to see whether it is consistent with the principle.

The court has already ruled — years ago and now recently — that relying on local levies to pay for “basic education” is unconstitutional.

While the court didn’t base its ruling on the principle of uniformity, the ruling is consistent with it.

So, is this a principle that we should apply in examining whatever reforms are proposed?  Can someone come up with a reason why it isn’t?

Assume for the sake of discussion that providing essentially uniform “basic education” opportunities within the state and within each school district is our primary goal based on this principle of uniformity.

Take the proposal introduced by Rep. Ross Hunter at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on Dec. 7 as an example of the sort of reforms which may be proposed and examine it.

One aspect seems good — swapping state levy revenue for part of currently approved local levy revenue.  It requires a higher state levy tax rate but lowers the local levy amount at the same time.

If we agree that a significant chunk of the revenue from local levies is paying for “basic education,” then putting state revenue in its place directly addresses a part of the problem.

Another aspect seems not so good — setting a cap on local levies at $2,500 per student.  This high cap may perpetuate reliance on local levies.

The temptation to define “basic education” in a way that keeps state funding relatively low doesn’t seem to be removed by such a high limit on local levies. “Basic education” may be defined at a lower funding level, while “enrichment” programs rely on differing local levies.

If the distinction between “basic education” and “enrichment” allows for substantially different educational opportunities within the state and within districts, what principle would we be following?

Are all children equal in their right to an education at public expense, but some are more equal than others?

There may always be differences as some districts provide more than the required “basic education,” but we need a way to determine what difference is a matter of principle rather than a result of political power.

 

Bob Meadows is

a Port Orchard resident.

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