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Twister economics no solution to school funding

 


Solutions to serious problems should not require contortions of logic that look like the loser in that old game of Twister. You know the one: where players try to reach different spots on a large surface on the floor with different parts of their bodies until one of them finally falls over.

The solution the state Legislature came up with after the state Supreme Court ruled the state was neglecting its primary constitutional responsibility — basic education — was a partial solution that will not last because it does not address fundamental inequities in the state’s tax system.

It’s not clear that anybody will have either the stomach or standing to challenge it, especially since it temporarily solves the problem for most school districts. But at some point in the mid to distant future, the exact same problems will once more become acute.

Unfortunately for small, tax-poor districts such as those that educate students in the Grand Coulee Dam, Nespelem and many other areas, they are poisoned coal mine canaries that everybody wants to believe will make it if we just pump in a little more oxygen.

The court ruling meant that forcing local voters to choose between paying higher local taxes and educating their children was unconstitutional, because basic education is job one for the state. An uneven system of local property tax support meant that some districts had to rely more heavily on local support, instead of the state, to do the state’s job.

Although the court ruled last June that the Legislature had at long last implemented a new plan and lifted its $100,000-per-day contempt fines (the initial ruling had come down in 2012), it didn’t actually rule on whether that plan fulfills the definition of “ample funding” the constitution talks about.

From a poor, rural district perspective, it doesn’t. The Legislature and the state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction will be working on more funding this year, apparently, with a proposed new law that would make up about half of what school districts lost under the “McCleary fix.” But OSPI contends part of the solution should be to allow local schools to pony up any difference.

Exactly how does that satisfy a ruling that says local taxes can’t fulfill the state’s obligation?

It doesn’t, and state legislators should strive to fix the problem without locals, who already pay relatively high taxes for schools, having to shell out even more to accomplish the state government’s constitutionally defined highest priority.

The answer should fall to the state, whose legislators should have political courage enough to raise state taxes, if that’s what it takes, instead of forcing local school boards to do the job in a piecemeal fashion.

If legislators fail, districts like Grand Coulee Dam will end up grabbing their behinds in an awkward attempt to stay up, but when they fall, politicians should get the bruises for their not-funny implementation of Twister economics.

Scott Hunter

editor and publisher

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