Representative Ross Hunter (D-Medina), the chair of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee, had an op-ed in the Seattle Times this weekend hawking his own version of a property tax levy swap. But before I get into the details, let me just start by repeating what I wrote the very first time I posted on this controversial subject:
Don't get me wrong—equity is a lofty goal, and one which I could wholeheartedly support as part of a broader education funding package. I don't mind paying higher taxes to help educate children in poorer districts, as long as we get adequate funding in the Seattle schools as well.
The problem is, no property tax levy swap on its own—neither the McKenna/Zarelli plan, nor Rep. Hunter's proposal—satisfies that latter requirement. Both are revenue-neutral proposals that do not add a single penny to total state and local K-12 spending. And in my view, addressing the equity portion of last year's landmark McCleary decision without simultaneously addressing the larger funding mandate, should be politically unacceptable.
Hunter's proposal differs from McKenna's in three major ways. It is larger—about $1 billion a year vs. about $825 million. It would repeal Initiative 747's absurd 1 percent cap on revenue growth for the state portion of the property tax, thus assuring adequate levy revenue growth in the future. And it does not appear to slash the cap on local levies by nearly as much as the McKenna/Zarelli plan, replacing the existing formula with a flat $2,500 per student maximum for all districts. That's certainly an improvement over the swap that was debated during the gubernatorial campaign.
And unlike McKenna, Hunter at least acknowledges that in addition to his levy swap we would need "at least $1 billion per year in additional revenue" to meet the McCleary mandate (arguably a low-ball figure). But while he provides ample details on his swap proposal, Hunter offers no elaboration on the revenue side. "There are issues with my proposal that need to be ironed out," he writes.
This focus on the swap first and the revenue later is bad politics that can only lead to bad policy. Give Republican legislators their levy swap—which generally lowers property taxes in Republican districts while raising property taxes in Democratic districts—and they'll have little incentive to support any subsequent effort to raise revenue to more broadly increase state funding.
If we're going to do a "swap," we should swap it for Republican support for new revenue. That's how this game is played. Otherwise we get little more than an accounting trick that increases state K-12 spending without providing a nickel more to our public schools.
But the truth is, even when it comes to equity, a swap isn't really necessary at all.
Funding inequity has gradually crept into Washington's K-12 system as a direct result of a relentless progression of state funding cutbacks both in real and absolute dollars. If the state actually provided ample funding for basic education, as the state constitution requires, equity would cease to be much of an issue, since local levy dollars would make up a smaller percentage of total K-12 spending. The problem is not that "property-rich" districts are spending too much, it's that the state is spending too little.
So if state K-12 funding is truly "ample," why should it be of any concern to taxpayers in Ridgefield if voters in Seattle choose to raise their own property taxes further to fund additional non-basic services? A swap is by it's very nature a lowest common denominator approach to the equity issue that limits local taxes, while doing nothing to increase total K-12 spending.
Instead—and here's a novel and straight forward idea—why don't we just raise the state school levy from the $2.26 per thousand dollars of property value rate it stands at now, to the maximum statutory $3.60 rate it stood at during the mid-1980s, the era of peak K-12 funding equity? That would add over $1.1 billion in new K-12 spending, about $1,000 per student. Sure, everybody's taxes would go up, but by far the largest share would still be shouldered by those of us in "property-rich" districts, thus increasing both equity and funding. If local voters then want to cut their own local school levies, that's up to them.
And that really cuts to the crux of the property tax levy swap debate. In the name of equity it offsets a hike in the state school levy by lowering property taxes in selected districts, thus passing up the state's easiest path toward providing our schools the additional dollars they really need: A hike in the existing state school levy toward its statutory cap.
These swap proposals may have an understandable appeal to voters in the mostly-rural/mostly-Republican districts who will see their property taxes slashed, but it does nothing to address the funding crisis. And as Rep. Hunter well knows, due to the increasing role PTAs are playing in the funding of their schools, this swap could actually end up increasing inequity, both between districts and within them.
In discussing this issue some years back, Rep. Hunter admitted that the PTA at his children's Medina Elementary School raised over $1,000 per student. That's comparable to PTAs at public schools in some of Seattle's wealthier neighborhoods. At the same time, the PTA at my daughter's southend school struggled to raise $30,000 a year, while other area schools had no PTA at all. By hamstringing Seattle's ability to raise local levy funds, we only end up exacerbating the existing inequity between northend and southend schools.
Of course, much of this inequity dissipates if the state finally fulfills its constitutional "paramount duty ... to make ample provision for the education of all children." And it doesn't appear that offsetting a hike in the state school levy with cuts in our local school levies gets us any closer toward meeting this obligation. But a hike in the state school levy on its own, would.