expecting different results."
― Albert Einstein
The Washington Education Association (WEA) panel representatives consistently advocated for a continuation of local bargaining of teacher compensation. On the other hand, several teachers complained about a system in which colleagues in neighboring districts made significantly higher salaries. While it may not have been clear to everyone who attended these meetings, the inequality of salaries is a direct byproduct of local bargaining, and it’s at the heart of the funding system ruled as unconstitutional in the McCleary decision.
Any solution to this problem requires a good understanding of how we got into the current mess. Since my teaching career began the year after the landmark 1977 Doran decision, I’ve had a ring-side seat to the erosion of state support that has occurred since then. The Doran decision was supposed to fix the unconstitutional reliance on local levies to fund basic education costs. The primary reason it didn’t do so is the Legislature’s fear of supporting the taxes necessary to provide ample school funding. That fear is well-founded because pro-tax votes have often been a death sentence for legislative careers.
As a result, we’ve seen a gradual erosion back to the issues litigated in the Doran decision. Figure 1 is from an OSPI report, which shows at the time of the Duran lawsuit, local levies made up 24 percent of total school revenue. That fell to 8 percent in 1980-81 in the aftermath of that decision, but as of 2013-14, it had grown back to 19 percent. That steady growth has occurred due to multiple legislative decisions to increase the levy lid, along with voters’ willingness to support their local schools.
Part of the teacher frustration about salary inequity expressed during the Listening Tour is a direct result of this increase in locally funded salaries. The problem, as pointed out in my previous post, is the wide differences in the tax rates required to raise local levy dollars. As a result, according to Table 34B of the 2014-15 OSPI Personnel Summary Report, the range of average locally funded teacher salaries goes from $0 at the low end to over $22,000 at the upper end.
What may not be clear to teachers frustrated by that salary disparity, is it’s a direct result of the Legislature’s actions for the past four decades to shift more and more of the BEA funding responsibility onto local school districts. In the McCleary decision the Supreme Court declared that shift a violation of the constitution:
… the increase in school districts’ levy capacity over the years reflects the growing need to fill the gap between state allocations and the actual cost of providing the program of basic education. Reliance on levy funding to finance basic education was unconstitutional 30 years ago in Seattle School District, and it is unconstitutional now. (pg. 68)
This makes the WEA’s advocacy for continued local bargaining of compensation all the more puzzling. Clearly, the Court has said it’s the state’s responsibility to fund educator salaries. If the state fully funds compensation, what aspect of salaries is left for local bargaining? Does the WEA expect the state to pay whatever is bargained locally? And even more puzzling, didn’t the WEA see this issue as a significant part of any successful McCleary decision when they became a party in bringing the lawsuit forward?
Any legislative solution to the McCleary decision will need to tackle several thorny issues besides providing an ample and dependable source of revenue. Local bargaining is key among those. Knowing that this will be part of any ultimate solution, we urge lawmakers to act quickly in the short 2016 Session to put a halt to any further local enhancement of educator salaries.
Current contractual commitments must be met, but without a prohibition on any additional locally funded pay, there will likely be a repeat of the very devastating strikes and near strikes that occurred throughout the state this past fall. That certainly isn’t in the best interests of the students of our state. And the end result will be a further widening of the salary gap between the property poor and property rich districts. Ultimately, the Legislature will be left holding the bag to fix that; so even if only motivated by self-interest, the Legislature must act now.