Washington’s education funding formula defies description

Reforming state school funding rules during the next few years might be easier now that the recession has forced the Legislature to wipe some of the slate clean.

We won’t know for a little while longer exactly how all the changes in the state operating budget for 2009-2011 will affect South Kitsap School District, but it seems apparent that state funding will be lower.

Over the past 30 years, school funding has grown or shrunk by fits and starts, resulting in sometimes irrational differences among the state’s 296 school districts.

Unfortunately, our Legislature hasn’t always been faithful to the obligation placed on it by our constitution to provide for a uniform system of public schools.

For example, state funding of payroll costs is not the same for all districts. Those who were paying their personnel more 30 years ago get more from the state under the formula used to distribute funds.

This particular “grandfathered” status for some districts is so clearly irrational that the state lost a lawsuit challenging it and is beginning to equalize the distribution formula.

The recession’s effect on state revenues makes it impractical to correct the situation immediately, but at least the principle involved is not being ignored.

Levy equalization funding is another victim of the legislature’s sometimes unprincipled decisions related to school funding, but there is a glimmer of hope for better days.

Although the Legislature didn’t enact the needed amendment to state law before the recent session ended, the appropriations bill requires a reduction in the levy equalization funding that would have been distributed under current law.

Probably the Legislature will amend the law in a special session to conform it to the operating budget’s appropriations.

Instead of increasing levy equalization funding to the “maintenance level” needed to stay even with spending projections under current law, the budget keeps this funding at close to the amount being spent in the 2007-2009 budget.

Avoiding a significant reduction in the number of dollars provided for levy equalization may not seem like a big victory, but it is.

The governor and some leaders in the legislature had tried to cut levy equalization funding below current levels in order to avoid making cuts elsewhere that would have affected school districts which don’t receive equalization funding.

The effect would have been felt by school districts like ours, but not by districts where the property tax base makes it easier to pass larger levies.

Stopping such an irrational budget decision gives reason to hope that the legislature may begin to avoid treating school districts differently when there is no rational basis for the difference.

Unfortunately, every silver lining has its dark cloud, and this big victory on levy equalization funding is no exception.

The same bill that needs to be passed to conform the law to the budget also contains provisions that indicate many legislators still prefer to rely on local levies rather than state funding.

If the Senate’s version of the bill is enacted, school levy lids would be increased by 4 percentage points, and districts could ask voters to increase existing voter-approved levies without waiting until they expire.

There must be some districts that would welcome the opportunity to raise their local levies rather than pay more for the education of all children in the state as the constitution says.

This desire isn’t irrational, but it is unprincipled.

It is the sort of idea that ought to be defeated as the legislature attempts over the next few years to reform state school funding formulas.

The goal should be to reduce the funding differences among school districts when those differences have no rational basis, not to increase them by offering the chance to ask for more local funding.

When the ability to raise local funding differs among the school districts, as it does, the state funding system must not ignore this fact.

Bob Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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