Senate Republicans' Plan Doesn't Amply Fund Schools, Puts Other Programs at Risk
The Senate Republicans' new plan to fund K-12 public schools continues to work within a framework that doesn’t raise additional revenue – a strategy that has proven ineffective at serving Washington's kids and that could force cuts to other important investments. To pay for the basics, including keeping excellent teachers and staff in our public schools, the legislature must inject more resources into schools than they have in recent years. Any plan to improve our schools must include additional new revenue, as well as a strong focus on equity, sustainability, and adequacy.
The Senate’s plan, called the Education Equality Act, features as its major funding source a new Local Effort Levy – basically, an increase to the statewide property tax of $1.80 per $1,000 of assessed value. As details about the plan emerge, however, it appears that the plan does not actually raise additional dollars for schools. That’s because the proposed statewide property tax increase is coupled with cuts to local property tax levies that currently fund a significant portion of basic education costs. As we’ve said in the past, levy swaps like this are schemes that change the source of the money flowing to schools but don’t actually make new investments in Washington’s kids.
As it is structured, the plan could deepen the shortfall in school funding because the plan does not pay for itself. It leaves a $1.4 billion hole in the 2019-2021 budget, for which its authors have yet to identify a source of funding. Promising to pay for education without identifying a funding source is a prescription for damaging cuts throughout the rest of the budget. And while the plan would dedicate future revenue growth to funding basic education, it would use any revenue growth in addition to the dedicated funds to decrease the new Local Effort Levy to a rate of $1.25. In short, the proposal is not only short on revenue now, but it is also designed to restrict revenue growth for schools and other public investments in the future.
There is certainly promise in raising additional school revenue through property tax reforms, as we have proposed. The Senate's plan would effectively nearly double the current state property tax rate. And it exempts the Local Effort Levy from the damaging 1 percent property tax levy growth limit, which is a positive step toward making the tax code more sustainable. But this plan should go further and get rid of the 1 percent levy growth limit altogether to allow property tax revenue to better keep up with the needs of our schools.
In addition, any reforms to the property tax should also include steps to fix our inequitable, upside-down tax code – in which Washingtonians with the lowest incomes pay seven times what the richest 1 percent pay in taxes as a share of income. The Senate's plan aims to more evenly distribute the tax code so that homeowners in every school district pay the same property tax rate, regardless of property values. But that doesn’t do enough to protect the thousands of lower- and middle-income homeowners and renters who would see higher property tax bills under the Senate proposal. The proposal should include a property tax safeguard rebate to ensure that property tax increases do not fall disproportionately on the shoulders of families who can’t afford it, no matter what part of the state they call home.
To learn more about the Senate Republicans' school funding plan, join our fiscal policy team for a Budget Beat webinar this Friday, February 3, at noon. And stay tuned for further analysis when more details about the fiscal impact of the plan become available.