Funding Education from The Chronicle, 10/2/2007

School Levy Measure Will Lead to New Higher Levy Limits

by: Neal Kirby, principal at Edison Elementary in Centralia. He is also a former state legislator

Washington State voters have a chance to change the voter threshold needed to pass a school levy from 60 percent of the vote to 50 percent plus one of the vote.

Proponents of the simple majority, which is on the November ballot - EHJR 4204 - say this is simply democracy at its best. What could be fairer in the American system then deciding by a simple vote?

The argument touts the sanctity of one person/one vote. Why should 41 percent of the voters be allowed to sink a school tax levy that 59 percent of the voters approved? Why should a "no" vote carry so much more weight than a "yes" vote? Fire, library, hospital and port districts can all collect taxes with a simple majority.

The United States has been the light to the world for over 230 years on what it means to be a republic. But does democracy in the U.S. always mean equal power for each voter?

During the writing of the U.S. Constitution, states with large populations demanded Congress be based on population, giving each voter equal proportional representation. Smaller states demanded that each state have equal representation in the legislature, fearful that the largest states would, as one convention delegate said, "aggrandize themselves at the expense of the small." Benjamin Franklin, in the great compromise, suggested each state have two senators in the Senate and the House of Representatives be proportionally based on population.

Both Washington state and California, for example, have two U.S. senators, but Washington has only nine Congressmen while California has 53. Washington's 6.5 million citizens get the same two votes in the U.S. Senate as 36 million Californians. Compromise, not one-man one-vote, ruled the day and Franklin kept our country together.

The Constitution also requires a 66 percent threshold in the Senate to approve members of the U.S. Supreme Court. It takes 66 percent majorities in both houses of Congress and 75 percent of the state legislatures to amend the Constitution. And who would want to be tried by a jury that could decide with 50 percent plus one? A 7-to-5 vote hardly seems beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Washington State Constitution, to insure that all children have an equal chance to quality education, makes it the paramount duty of the state to fund a general and uniform system of public schools. In the populist era when the Constitution was written, no one was considered more equal than the next. It became the state's paramount duty, not local tax districts, to see all children are educated equally.

In 1977, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled our school levy system infringed on the rights of children to an equal education. The incredibly unfair school levy system was providing as much as 40 percent more funds to some districts as it was to others. The justices ruled that the legislature must provide "a method for the fully sufficient funding of education without reliance on special excess levies."

The 1977 legislature, in response, set local levy limits at 10 percent more than what just the state funded. Over 20 times since, though, the levy system has been changed so that some schools can now have up to 33 percent more from local levies than what the district otherwise collects from both state and federal sources.

We again have an incredibly unfair levy system. It takes most districts as much as four, five, and 10 times the tax rate as others to pass the second half of the levy. Seattle, in 2005, needed only 43 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation to pass the second half of the levy while Chehalis needed $1.62, almost four times as much. Winlock needed $2.81, almost seven times as much. Onalaska needed $2.15, Granger $6.31, Yakima $3.29, and South Bend $3.78. Nespelem needed a whopping $20.71, over 45 times what Seattle needed.

In 2005, the tax on a $150,000 house in Granger would have been twice the tax on a $500,000 in Bellevue to collect the same per student levy revenues.

These different tax rates are asked to fund the state's paramount duty in a state where the constitution also says "all taxes shall be uniform upon the same class of property." This clause is why we can't have a graduated income tax, but the clause should also protect property owners from paying extraordinarily different tax rates to cover the state's responsibility to educate our students.

So is it is fair to expect that at least 60 percent of the voters should need to vote yes on a school levy before it passes? Fire, library, hospital, and port districts are not guaranteed by the state Constitution the way education is guaranteed. It is the state's responsibility to fund education and special excess levies for schools should be just that, special and excess, not needed for basic education. Local school districts should not be paying extraordinarily diverse rates to cover the state's responsibilities.

A person does not have to be anti-education as is so often implied by others if they object to EHJR 4204. All they have to be is interested in fair taxation. As the numbers show, poorest areas pay the highest tax rates and highest taxes. There should be an emergency before passing such unfair taxes on property, and getting over 60 percent of the vote is a great way to show that.

When EHJR 4204 passed the Legislature, senators had a chance to guarantee a cap on school levies by adding to the amendment a clause that would have capped all levies at the state average tax rate needed to collect a levy. In 2005, it would have capped the tax rate needed for the second half of the levy at $1.29 per $1,000 but the Senate voted down the proposal. EHJR 4204 passed without any tax cap to go with it. The

Legislature also refused to even hear Sen. Jim Honeyford's (R-Sunnyside) bill that would have provided the same tax cap on school levies through legislation.

Unlike the U.S. Congress, both houses of our state Legislature are based only on population where the most populated areas can "aggrandize themselves at the expense of the small." And they do.

If EHJR 4204 passes, legislators will again propose new higher levy limits while claiming all schools could now provide higher levies with simple majority. There will be even more reliance on local school levies. The richest schools will continue passing far higher levies and poorer districts will again be guessing what amount might fail their levy before setting their levy requests.

EHJR 4204 is not the way to fix schools. It is a further abandonment of the poorest schools with the poorest funding, the poorest students, the poorest taxpayers, and the lowest scores on state tests. EHJR 4204 should be defeated and reconsidered next session with the addition of a constitutionally guaranteed cap on tax rates and a guarantee of a state match to make up the levy revenue differences between school districts.

The guarantee would cost $350 million. It would be a $200 million tax break to the most unfair and highly taxed areas and be a $150 million shot in the arm for the poorest schools. The state's $1.5 billion surplus could easily cover it.

All children deserve an equal education in our state. EHJR 4204 isn't the answer.

This page created and maintained by Dave Palmer

(-Back to home page-)