Senators propose linking property-tax relief and substantial increase in support for K-12 schools

Bipartisan legislation would move toward education equity in every ZIP Code

OLYMPIA… Sen. John Braun (R-Centralia) and Sen. Mark Mullet (D-Issaquah) say state government’s positive financial outlook has given legislators an opportunity to make significant new investments in Washington’s K-12 schools, bring local school-levy rates down and avoid a repeat of the McCleary school-funding lawsuit.

“This proposal is a win all the way around – for students, parents, school districts and taxpayers,” said Braun, who introduced Senate Bill 5922 on Wednesday with Mullet.

“We’re aware of the decline in enrollment and the nosedive in student test scores, and the principle of local control means those generally have to be addressed at the school-board level,” Braun said. “But the Legislature can and should do something about the local-levy increases that are making it less affordable for people to support their schools, and make sure parents see the return on education investments they expect and deserve. This is a great opportunity to build trust among taxpayers and parents.”

“The Legislature has a window to embrace a bipartisan and sustainable education-funding formula that gives additional resources for schools to address their needs, like more teachers, school nurses and support staff,” Mullet said. “This bill also provides property-tax relief for many families struggling with the increasing costs of goods and services. It is extremely rare that our state is in a position to do both things at once.”

The $3.5 billion in the bipartisan proposal would include funding increases for special education; the learning assistance program; local effort assistance; student support staff, such as counselors, mental health professionals, and nurses; and vocational and gifted education. Funding also would be aimed at addressing COVID-related learning loss and other needs.

The McCleary reforms passed in 2017 lowered property taxes for residents of most Washington school districts, capping local levies at $1.50 per $1,000 assessed property valuation. That changed after 2019 when legislators lifted the levy cap to $2.50, and set the stage for a return to the funding inequity that prompted the McCleary lawsuit. SB 5922 would take the levy cap back down to $1.50, providing significant, direct tax relief and averting a “McCleary 2.0” situation.

“Even though providing for basic education is the Legislature’s paramount duty, K-12 hasn’t accounted for more than 50% of the operating budget since 2017,” said Braun, who is Senate Republican leader. “Our proposal also would make basic education the top budget priority again, with a larger investment than Gov. Jay Inslee proposed for this year’s supplemental budget. At the same time this bill offers tax relief not found in the governor’s budget.”

“Asking school districts to rely on local tax levies, which are inherently inequitable, is not something we can allow to happen again,” Mullet said. “The unprecedented budget surplus should be used to set our state’s education system on strong fiscal footing for the future. There are also urgent needs among students who have suffered staggering learning loss from virtual schooling. Our local school districts need the state to step up and provide reliable ongoing funding to address these unprecedented losses.”

Braun said it would be false to suggest SB 5922 is unaffordable, noting the state’s projected revenue surplus exceeds $10 billion for the 4-year budget outlook, with more than three-fourths of that revenue ongoing rather than one-time.

“The constitution says K-12 is the top priority. There’s no question that even before the pandemic, the Legislature had strayed from the promises made by the McCleary reforms,” Braun said. “This proposal represents a move back toward the right path.”