For all the problems with K-12 education funding in Washington state (and let's be honest, there are some awfully big problems), there is one thing that the state does extremely right: We fund our schools predominantly at the state level rather than at the local level. On average, about three quarters of K-12 school funding comes from the state, with only about a quarter coming from local taxpayers. In some other states, these numbers are reversed.
The result is that while there are funding disparities both between districts and within them, there is much more K-12 parity within Washington State than in much of the rest of the nation. (I'm not excusing the inequity that is there, just pointing out that there is less compared to many other states.)
This is arguably very good public policy... assuming there is the political will to raise the revenue necessary to fund all our schools at an adequate level, rather than allowing a lack of funding to drag all our schools down. It is also a policy that appears to enjoy near universal bipartisan support. For example, you never hear rural Republicans arguing to get state government off their backs and let their public schools go it alone.
But, you know, this is also a policy that implicitly embraces massive redistribution of wealth, a concept normally anathema to conservative politicians. Wealthy regions like the Seattle metropolitan area disproportionately fund state government, while rock-solid Republican regions like those in rural Eastern Washington get many more dollars back from the state than they send to Olympia. It is, dare I say socialist programs like "levy equalization," that keep the funding of their schools roughly on par with ours, regardless of whether their voters support the taxes necessary to pay for them.
But good intentions and court orders can only go so far.
So here's some helpful advice to public school boosters in the less wealthy parts of the state: You can either support urban Democrats in our efforts to tax ourselves to amply pay for the education of all our state's children, or you can prepare for an era of growing inequity. The statutory cap on local school levies may never disappear, but there are many ways to get around it, from Seattle's Families & Education Levy to the millions of dollars a year that PTA's in affluent schools and districts raise to supplement the woeful lack of state school funding. Seattle, for example, is wealthy enough to fund universal high quality preschool on our own—in fact, doing so would inevitably cost our taxpayers substantially less than a comparable state-funded program.
And given the lack of support from the rest of the state for raising the tax dollars necessary to fund public education at the level we want and need, this is exactly the route we will eventually take. We don't want to disadvantage children born in property-tax-poor districts, but our first obligation is to our own children. As parents, I'm sure you understand that. So if you won't let us raise the revenue necessary to amply provide for the education of all our children, then we will find a way to do it for our own.
If there is a lesson to learn from Olympia's utter refusal to address the McCleary decision, it's that local school districts cannot look to Olympia to fix their funding problems. Fortunately for Seattle, we're rich, so we can afford to address our own needs. But if that is the path we are forced to take, it can't help but erode our support for a state K-12 funding system that, for all its problems, has long been one of the most equitable in the nation.