On Tuesday, I attended a forum in Issaquah on education funding, organized by the League of Education Voters.  The main speakers were Rep. Ross Hunter  — Democratic chair of the House Ways and Means (budget) Committee — and Republican State Senator Steve Litzow of the 41st LD.

Ross Hunter
Ross Hunter (D-48th LD)
Steve Litzow
Steve Litzow (R-41st LD)

In the McCleary decision last year the State Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature is underfunding K-12 education, which is the “paramount duty” of the state according to the State Constitution.  Hunter says that between now and 2018 the state will have to spend an additional $4.5 billion on education.  For 2013-2015, the state should spend about $1.7 billion more.

In the 2009 bill HB 2261, signed by then Gov. Gregoire, the Legislature clarified and strengthened the definition of “basic education”, on the basis of substantial research and debate. That bill will now have to be funded.    One change is that in the future the state should be paying for many of the services now provided locally by districts:  transportation of students, supplies,  operating costs, and salaries. Currently  too much of the funding is provided by local school districts;  this results in higher real estate tax rates needed in poorer districts.     In short, Bellevue should be paying more money to help students in poor districts. For a primer on Levy Equalization see this link.

In addition, HB 2261 calls for free all-day kindergarten and for smaller K-3 class sizes.  And it calls for more stringent graduation requirements, including additional credit hours. This will require longer a school year.

But Litzow emphasized “Our caucus won’t pay 1 penny more into education” without more accountability that the money is being well spent.

Republicans are not entirely without justification for worrying about accountable spending.  Hunter and Litzow regularly referred to a poster with the following graph, showing Return on Investment on education spending:

WA Education Return on Investment

Source: Center for American Progress

Green dots indicate high return on investment. Pink and red dots indicate low return on investment. As you can see, Issaquah School District has one of the highest returns on investment. (The education forum was held in Issaquah and everyone applauded the Issaquah superintendent of schools, who was sitting in the audience.)

The source of the graph is some research done by the Center for American Progress. (You can run an interactive online application that lets you explore the data visually at the following URL: http://www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/issues/2011/01/educational_productivity/av/Main.swf. When the application starts, Virginia shows on the map on the left; zoom out and scroll over to Washington State to see our state’s data.)

One interpretation of the data is that there is no relation between spending and performance. If spending correlated with performance you’d see points cluster along a sloped line. But points are scattered rather randomly around the graph.

But there are confounding factors.

What does predict school performance is affluence. There are about 57 chronically failing school districts. Typically these are in poor areas, where there are many kids getting free or reduced-price lunches, and where many students speak foreign languages at home.  The state may need to take over some of these districts but Litzow said the state would rather not play that role.

Litzow and Hunter mentioned that many of the most inefficient school districts are in rural areas, where there are often few students and where Republicans generally hold legislative offices.

There is evidence that low class sizes increase student performance, especially for the lower grades. That correlates with money spent.

The  League of Education Voters has lots of interesting data about education.  For example, about 50% of UW freshmen need remedial courses. In 1990 Washington State spent 113% of the national average per pupil; by 2007 Washington State was spending just 89% of the national average.  Of 100 9th graders, 69 graduate from high school on time, 35 enter a community college or university, 25 return for their sophomore year, and only 18 have received a diploma within 6 years.

The League of Education Voters was instrumental in pushing for passage of HB 2261 and in protecting education funding.  But they support charter schools, despite the fact that charter schools have been shown to be no more effective than public schools, despite the fact that charter schools drain money from public schools to largely unaccountable private administrators, and despite that fact that charter schools are probably unconstitutional in Washington State.

State Republicans have been promoting the idea “Fund Education First.” As their website says:

House Republicans proposed House Bill 2533 this year to Fund Education First. The bill was heard Jan. 31. It requires that K-12 education funding be separately approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor before any other appropriations are made. This bill would take the politics out of education.

Democrats, including Hunter, oppose Fund Education First, arguing that it’s immoral (and probably illegal) to make further cuts to social services — which would be the likely result of the bill. See Hunter’s comments here. Also, how can students do well at school if they’re homeless, hungry, or sick?

I propose calling Fund Education First by the acronym “PGDTS”: Push Grandma Down the Stairs — except that it would also push kids and homeless people and the mentally ill and drug addicts down the stairs and out into the street and into emergency rooms.

Litzow appeared a couple of weeks ago at an environmental coalition meeting at Bellevue College.  He’s personable and approachable. He portrays himself as a “moderate” Republican.  Probably he IS to the left of most members of his caucus.  I’ve spoken with him, and he seems reasonable.  But he betrayed women’s rights groups, who endorsed him in his 2010 race against Randy Gordon, by casting the deciding vote against the Reproductive Parity Act, as discussed here.  Litzow defeated Gordon by about 200 votes, thanks to attack ads funded by the Koch brothers.  Like turncoats Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon, and like many members of the so-called Road Kill Caucus of centrist Democrats, Litzow is sometimes progressive on women’s issues and on environmental issues, but on fiscal issues (which are the foundation for progress on other issues), Litzow votes with his caucus.

Hunter confessed at the forum to being somewhat to the right of his caucus. Hunter did emphasize that Washington State has the most regressive tax system in the country. I was glad to hear him say this, but I wanted to challenge him about his past support for taxbreaks for Microsoft. (See also this.) So I asked Hunter, “In view of the regressiveness of our tax system, and due to the burden that high real estate taxes would place on retired elderly people, wouldn’t it better to raise revenue with a capital gains tax, or by eliminating tax preferences such as the billion dollars that the legislature gives to Microsoft every year?”

Hunter, who used to be a manager at Microsoft, replied that it’s hard to get money from  Microsoft, since it is a high margin business, while WA’s taxes were designed in the middle of the last century for high revenue corporations. (I’m not sure I heard him right or understand his point.)  Hunter also said that to avoid taxes Microsoft offloads many of its profit-making enterprises to other states, such as Nevada.  But from what I read, Hunter was instrumental in passing the law that permitted Microsoft to take advantage of their tax avoidance schemes.  I could have challenged him further on this, but I didn’t.

Hunter also said that there are programs that rebate real estate taxes to low income elderly.    Real estate taxes are more progressive than sales taxes but still not as progressive as a capital gains or income tax.

On the issue of raising new revenue, Governor Inslee is allied with the Republicans:  when running for office, Inslee campaigned on a platform of not raising taxes.   Hunter believes that Inslee and others will eventually have an epiphany and realize that without new revenue the State will be unable to both pay for the McCleary and satisfy legal and moral requirements for taking care of vulnerable people.

After the forum I asked Hunter whether the Legislature would be able to raise revenue without going to the voters if the Supreme Court rules that Tim Eyman’s 2/3 super-majority requirement (I-1053) is unconstitutional. Hunter said that he expects that the Supreme Court will decide that the 2/3 super-majority requirement is unconstitutional. But that won’t stop Tim Eyman from proposing a referendum to the voters to overturn any tax increase that the Legislature might approve  — assuming, of course, Senate Republicans, Rodney Tom, and Tim Sheldon go along.  The State Supreme Court can’t impose taxes; that’s the job of the Legislature.

Hunter and Litzow clowned around a lot but seemed serious about competently getting the job done.  They seem concerned about the welfare of the states’ kids.