The Washington State Constitution tells us that funding K-12 education is the state’s “paramount duty.” And more than just a legal obligation to fund public schools, we have a moral obligation to make sure that all kids are provided the opportunity to learn and succeed. In too many cases, the color of a student’s skin or their zip code determines what opportunities are available. This is not right and it does not build a strong foundation for Washington’s kids to succeed.
In 2012, the State Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature was failing to fully fund K-12 education and was improperly relying on local school levies to pay for basic education. Local levies are supposed to pay for extra programs outside of basic education, but in many districts, including Seattle, Highline, and Vashon, inadequate state funding has forced local school boards to turn to operating levies to pay for basic classroom needs.
Since 2012, we in the Legislature have been trying to figure out how to fund education without making devastating cuts to other programs outside of basic K-12 education. These programs, which are not constitutionally protected, are still important to our state’s future, and include higher education, early childhood education, the food security safety net, the health care safety net, and the criminal justice system. Hungry, sick kids can’t learn, so even if we wanted to cut the safety net to fund basic education, it wouldn’t improve equity in the K-12 education system.
Since 2011, the legislature has made considerable progress toward fully funding our public schools. We have invested over $4 billion new dollars in K-12 education, including fully funding student transportation; expanding all-day kindergarten across the state; fully funding schools’ supplies and operating costs; and reducing class sizes for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
However, since we have not made any significant increases in revenue to fund basic education, we have been cobbling together new investments in education in every budget but only within existing resources.
I support increasing revenue to fund basic education. The particular strategies that I think make the most sense include ending certain outdated corporate tax exemptions and preferences, extending the sales tax to all purchases made online (this is a matter of fairness for our brick-and-mortar retailers, but requires action by Congress), and charging large polluters for the cost of the carbon pollution they emit into our shared atmosphere. None of these ideas have gotten traction in the Republican-controlled Senate yet, leaving us with more work to do to solve this problem.
We have also passed reforms to help all students have opportunities to learn, including a measure this year to close the opportunity gap by addressing inequities, such as over-use of suspensions and expulsions as a discipline tool, that create learning opportunity disadvantages for many students of color and students from low-income families.
However, as we know very well, our work is not done. The last major school funding hurdle to get over is to end the reliance on local levies. Solving this problem could cost as much as $4 billion dollars in our next budget. Coming up with an extra $4 billion dollars will require making tough decisions about what kind of Washington we want to live in – one where our unfair tax system means kids are hungry and homeless, or one where we fix our flawed tax system and support our next generation.
I invite your thoughts about the best way for us to find these additional dollars to help ensure every kid in Washington’s public schools has an opportunity to learn and succeed.