Opinion

Democracy, republicanism, and the charter

Initiative 884, if approved by the voters this fall, would increase the state sales tax from the current 6.5 percent to 7.5 percent to provide more state funding for public education — an objective that is dear to the hearts of many — but would it do more harm than good?

Several aspects of K-12 school funding need reform, but none of those reforms would result from approving I-884.

Levy equalization funding from the state ought to be increased, so districts with lower tax bases relative to enrollment can more readily pass school levies; but I-884 will do nothing to equalize the disparities in relative tax burdens among the districts.

Earmarking part of the state sales tax for additional school funding won’t eliminate the usual competition for funding in the legislature’s appropriations process, since public education would still need far more than would be provided by that part of the sales tax.

Half the revenue collected by the new sales tax would be spent on K-12 education, and this would represent approximately 9 percent of total state funding for the operation of K-12 schools.

The state property tax has long been earmarked for K-12 education, but it is only about 28 percent of total state funding of K-12 schools.

The state’s lottery revenue has been earmarked for the support of public education since the passage of Initiative 728 in 2001, but it represents less than 2 percent of state funding for K-12 schools.

Taking into consideration all the state revenue sources which are now and would be earmarked for K-12 education upon passage of I-884, the public schools would still have to compete with other programs for more than 60 percent of the funding they receive from the state.

Yet, the proponents of I-884 tout it as a dedicated source of revenue which would somehow protect schools from losing out in the competition for state funding.

If voters believe that it does protect school funding from that competition, then the schools will probably face even bigger hurdles in the appropriations process since many of their supporters may believe the job has been done by the initiative.

In the competition for a share of the state budget, schools would still face what is perhaps the biggest problem: Legislators from districts with big tax bases have little desire, if any, to increase state funding for schools—desiring instead to rely on local taxes in their own districts to support their own schools.

The new funding would increase rather than reduce existing funding disparities among the school districts, making it harder to gain the support of a majority of legislators for adequate funding of a general and uniform public school system for all children in Washington.

For example, compared to South Kitsap, Seattle has a bigger levy base, a higher levy lid, and a richer tax base because of commercial and industrial properties in that district, yet Seattle would receive a greater increase in state funding from I-884 because it has a larger proportion of students from low-income families.

And, so long as Seattle can make an end run around the school funding laws with their “Families and Education Levy,” which uses the city’s regular property tax authority to add millions of dollars per year to school funding in their own district, they have even less incentive to pay for public schools for all the children in Washington.

The initiative’s additional state funding for schools may also become an obstacle to gaining the voters’ approval of subsequent school district property tax levies, if voters believe that they have provided what is needed and then expect lower school property taxes on their homes.

Rarely can one attend a public meeting at which school funding and local levies are discussed without hearing someone gripe that things would be better if only the lottery revenue was spent on schools.

It is spent on schools, but that fact doesn’t seem to sink in. It is hardly more than a drop in the bucket, but people seem to believe it should greatly reduce their property taxes.

The added funding from I-884 would be 5 times as much as comes from the lottery, but that makes it little more than 5 drops in the bucket compared to the total spent. Yet, it is foreseeable that many people will expect the local school levy to decrease significantly as a result of that added funding.

Until there is a competent analysis at the state government level of the funding needs of K-12 schools followed by a commitment to provide at least 85 percent of that funding from state revenues, don’t expect to see a decrease in local school levies.

Instead, expect the new funding from I-884 to be added to the levy base, thereby increasing the levy authority of every school district—just as the increased state funding that resulted from I-728 was added to the levy base.

Imagine the arguments between voters who believe they have solved the problem (when they haven’t) and voters who cannot imagine a funding amount that is big enough (when surely there must be), and you can perhaps see how passage of I-884 would worry people who understand the need to pass local school levies.

In considering such issues, one should always try not to make the perfect the enemy of the good, but putting more money into the public schools without tying it to reform of the funding system may do more harm than good.

Robert Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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