and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.
After the initial proposals are on the table, budget negotiators then work toward a compromise somewhere between the Senate and House proposals. The political process of negotiating toward the middle is part of what’s caused our current school funding crisis, so it doesn’t seem likely that it will address the Court’s ruling. That is due to the anti-tax sentiment that has been a primary driver for political decisions within our state for several decades.
That anti-tax sentiment has likely been created, or at least exacerbated, by our state’s upside-down tax structure. According to the 2015 report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, Washington has the most regressive tax system in the nation. As a national average, the top 1% of wage earners paid 5.4% of their income in taxes, compared with 2.4% in Washington. At the other end of the income continuum, the national rate among the bottom fifth was 10.9% compared with 16.8% in Washington.
Given this comparison with other states, the majority of Washington voters have a legitimate complaint about paying more than their fair share. But while that sentiment seems to be translated into a general anti-tax sentiment by many voters, the real problem is that our state’s affluent citizens pay much less than they would in most other states. This undercurrent of taxpayer frustration has resulted in countless initiatives and other steps to oppose new taxes, even taxes that would result in a fairer distribution of the tax burden in our state.
This anti-tax sentiment has also undermined the state’s ability to respond to the Court’s 1978 ruling which stated that our constitution required the state to fully fund basic education. While that ruling didn’t prohibit the use of local levy revenue by our schools, such funding was supposed to be for enhancements such as extracurricular activities. Since our constitution and that ruling made Washington fairly unique regarding the state’s burden to fully fund education, one might assume we would be at the top in the share of education funding provided by the state.
Yet, according to U.S. Census data, in 2014, 61% of our K-12 revenue was provided by the state. While that was enough for a 10th place position overall, its far short of the contribution provided by the states that contribute most. Vermont, the top state, provides 89% of school funding, and in number two, Hawaii contributes 87%. One might assume the gap between Washington and those states reflects a relative lack of capacity, but according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Washington ranked 12th in its 2015 per capita personal income, while Vermont was 19th and Hawaii 20th.
Viewed through a different lens, according to the U.S. Census data, Vermont devotes $53 for every $1,000 of personal income to support its public schools, which is the highest rate in the nation. Hawaii is third, spending $37.71 per $1,000. Washington, the state with two court rulings directing it to fully fund K-12 education, comes in at 16th with $23.66 per $1,000 of income supporting our schools. It appears from these comparisons that our problem is one of will rather than capacity.
Which brings us back to how Washington’s anti-tax sentiment has hamstrung efforts to comply with our Supreme Court rulings. That sentiment impacts every step of the budget development process. The governor’s proposal is tempered by a need to get re-elected, so even in setting the high budget bar s/he backs off from what ample school funding would require. The Republicans, who currently control the Senate, offer proposals that don’t violate their “no-new-taxes” ideology. The Democrats, who control the House, fear voter backlash that could jeopardize their majority and offer less than they know an ample system would require. So, the dealing down occurs with all three of the initial proposals.
Once the negotiations begin, the process of compromise drives the Democratic proposal toward the Republicans, which represents further downward pressure on funding for Washington’s students. The trend caused by this dealing down is quite striking. Figure 1 is based on data provided in the 2015 Digest of Education Statistics. In the 1969-70 school year, a decade before to the Supreme Court’s first ruling on education funding, Washington was 8th in the nation in its average expenditure per student. In the decades following the Doran decision, Washington’s education spending rank plummeted to a low of 31st in 2009-10. That is the year the year Superior Court Judge John Erlick first ruled against the state in the McCleary case.
Whether it’s a coincidence or not, the state’s funding trend has reversed since Washington’s courts involved themselves for a second time in this education funding issue. While it isn’t yet clear if the court pressure will result in an ample school funding system for our state, that step just represents the first phase of what will be a long process.
Unless the pressure from anti-tax forces in our state are reversed after the Court relinquishes jurisdiction in the McCleary case, it’s doubtful that we will avoid the kind of decline in relative support the state experienced after Judge Doran first found our funding system unconstitutional. The only way to address that voter frustration seems to be the creation of a much more equitable tax system for Washington’s citizens. Unfortunately, one of our state’s political parties and many of the most wealthy and influential citizens have a vested interest in preventing such change from occurring.