Republicans, Schools, and Taxes

Our most important community endeavor is the education of our children. In Washington State public education is funded mostly through property taxes, either property taxes levied by, and distributed by, the state or property taxes levied by local school districts. Funding schools with property taxes is a badly flawed system. Inevitably, such a system left to run free will result in poorer districts with a smaller tax base (on a per student basis) being able to raise less money for public education than wealthier districts, a process that widens the funding gap in public education. That’s what the Washington State Supreme Court’s often misunderstood McCleary Decision (2012) was about. Here’s how Wikipedia summarizes it:

Mathew and Stephanie McCleary et al., v. State of Washington (short form: McCleary v. Washington), commonly known as the McCleary Decision,[1] was a lawsuit against the State of Washington. The case alleged that the state, in the body of the state legislature, had failed to meet the state constitutional duty (in Article IX, Section 1) “to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.”[2]

The mandate to the Washington State legislature from the Washington State Supreme Court in the McCleary Decision couldn’t be clearer: Washington State is in violation of its own Constitution. Fix it. Find a way to fund public education that offers enough money to poorer districts so that all children in the state are “amply” provided for. We (the judicial branch) don’t legislate, you (the legislative branch) are given that responsibility. You need to comply with that which the state constitution  requires.

How to proceed? We in the State of Washington have the most regressive overall [that’s all state and local taxes, not just property taxes] tax system in the nation. “Poor residents here pay 16.8 percent of family income in state and local taxes  while the wealthiest 1 percent pay only 2.4 percent.” The obvious solution to the McCleary mandate was to tackle Washington State’s regressive tax system, but McCleary was handed down in 2012 after the rabidly anti-communitarian Tea Party surge (born of the racist backlash to the election of President Obama in 2008). These reactionary, anti-tax Republicans in the Washington State Legislature made any attempt to look a broader funding solution to the McCleary decision impossible. Instead, for the next six years the legislature lurched through its efforts to comply with McCleary by relying solely on adjustments of property tax-based funding, the same funding source that had engendered the unconstitutional underfunding of education that McCleary spotlighted. During those six years, the Supreme Court, fully understanding its lack of a legislative role, refused to approve a series of half solutions the legislature cobbled together. 

Finally, after six years, a compromise solution to McCleary that satisfied the Washington State Supreme Court was reached. The compromise was dubbed a “levy swap equalization,” by then Washington State Representative Michael Baumgartner (R, LD4–now Spokane County Treasurer) in an email sent to supporters. This “solution” satisfied both McCleary and the anti-tax Republicans by adjusting the property tax rate levied by the State of Washington upward while capping the allowed local school district levy rate. The overall pot of state and local money to fund education statewide remained about the same, but, by collecting and dispersing more of it through the state coffers, the McCleary mandate was satisfied. Money was trimmed from the wealthier districts and given to the poorer ones for “Basic Education,” i.e. averaging out the funding, spreading it across the state. That money, of course, came from school districts that had enjoyed a higher tax base. Thanks to the levy cap (the “swap” part) taxpayers in wealthier districts saw little change in their property tax, but their school districts not only saw a net decrease in funding but were hamstrung by the levy cap when it came to providing money for school programs (like librarians and school nurses), programs that extended beyond “Basic Education.” Baumgartner’s July 21, 2017 email exposes the Republican logic (and forever branded him for me as a conniving, deceitful, hyper-partisan politician for whom statecraft is seen as a zero sum game, not an effort to improve the lives of people):

…we [Republicans] triangulated a strategy to fund the state’s K-12 McCleary case through a “levy swap equalization” that will reduce overall property taxes on nearly 75% of households (largely in areas represented by Republicans) and increase property taxes largely in the Seattle area (represented by Democrats).

The whole McCleary episode was only sketchily understood by most voters (including me) as it stretched out over more than half a decade. The subject seems arcane, it’s full of numbers and budgets. The reporting on McCleary was poor, arcane and hard to follow. Understanding each new step in the tension between the Supreme Court and the Legislature required mastery of a fact set most of us never acquired as the story unfolded. 

Before Donald Trump most of us still imagined that the folks we elected to public office would safeguard the interests of all. Baumgartner’s hateful email was a wakeup call for me. Baumgartner is basically saying he wants to stick it to Democratic districts for Republican gain. He expresses no interest in the communitarian value of adequately funding public education. He and his Republican Party remain adamantly opposed to all taxation–even more so to progressive taxation that asks more from the wealthiest among us to help support community values like public education.

So here we are with ballots in hand for the February 9th Election with one ballot measure to vote on, a Spokane Public Schools (District 81) replacement levy asking the community to continue to provide funds for public school programs beyond “Basic Education,” programs that were standard fare when I grew up and was educated in the Wisconsin public schools. Last Monday, January 18, I touched on the February 9th Election. Then I wrote, “This year some folks, using social media, are running a disinformation campaign about the replacement levy that threatens to torpedo the vote.” I have since learned that the Spokane Republican Party Executive Board (the exact composition of which is not clear from their website), true to form, has taken a position against the replacement levy, a position some are amplifying on social media. Knowing what I know now their opposition boils down to this: We Republicans are against all taxation regardless of its purpose. Furthermore, we assume the folks working to educate our children in the Spokane Public Schools are reckless with the money provided them to run District 81. Therefore, funding should be squeezed by denying Spokane Public Schools this levy request! 

Vote “Yes” on your ballot today and drop it in a dropbox or mail it. For additional background (which does not include the historical origins of this issue based in the McCleary Decision), check out Urge your friends and neighbors to do the same.

Finally, keep in mind the Republican anti-communitarian, zero-sum mindset. Understand the starkly regressive nature of Washington State’s tax system and the staunch Republican opposition to all efforts to fix it. Republican ideology tries to keep the voters focused on the voters’ personal tax situation rather than considering either what our taxes do for the common good or the broad issue of regressive taxation. 

Keep to the high ground,