Washington’s Broken Local Levy System: Why Teacher Strikes Still Happen Every Year

Before my sophomore year of high school, the school district’s teachers went on strike. At the time, we had no idea why this happened, really, but we treated it as some sort of wonderful, otherworldly combination of Christmas, Super Bowl XLVIII, and the Second Coming.  Under normal circumstances, the beauty of August and September in Seattle is cruelly lost on students who are forced to dutifully slog their way through the first few weeks of classes. Thus, the Endless Summer of 2002 was, objectively speaking, probably the best thing that could have ever happened to a bunch of 15-year-olds with nothing else to do but watch high-quality daytime TV programming, stand around talking in the QFC parking lot, and try and fail again to parallel park the family minivan. Even today, I can smell the burning brake pads just thinking about it.

This particular strike turned out to be no symbolic gesture, though. It lasted. After three weeks of fruitless negotiations, the fed-up school district announced it would open schools the next day, teacher presence be damned. No one really knew what to expect from this sudden resumption of custody; it wasn’t clear if there would be scab teachers at the front of the classroom, or if we would just kind of sit there, gleefully ignoring dated instructional videos and playing Snake II while grim-faced, resigned administrators pulled a Bad Teacher Cameron Diaz and read magazines with their feet propped up on the desk. Ultimately, we never got to find out, as the two sides hastily came to a resolution that same night. Much to our dismay, class began as scheduled and without further incident, though it became painfully clear that the extra time had absolutely no effect on Dr. Vernon’s typical total failure to formulate anything resembling a lesson plan.

Of course, all this meant at the time was that we had to go back to what was suddenly looking like a very bleak school year. To make up for the 15 lost instructional days, both winter breaks were shortened, spring break was basically cancelled, and all those vaguely named “Learning Improvement Days” that resulted in the occasional glorious three-day weekend were promptly scrubbed from the calendar. At least, that’s my whole memory of the episode. But because 2002 might as well be the 14th century with respect to the availability of contemporaneous news stored on the Internet, I can find precious little on what it was like for teachers, parents, and the other real adults who were unable to treat that month as an invitation to sleep until 11 every day. This link, from the venerable Sammamish Review, indicates that the aforementioned hastily disseminated return-to-school directive was actually the result of an injunction ordering teachers back into their classrooms; the accompanying scab speculation likely stemmed from uncertainty over whether the teachers, three weeks deep into the work stoppage, would defy the order. Another article, from the now-online-only Seattle Post-Intelligencer, provides details on what the two sides actually agreed on (all emphasis mine):

The contract uses local money, in the form of salary-schedule increases and bonuses, to provide a 3.8 percent pay increase over two years, the district said; state aid has covered 95 percent of teacher pay. The proposal that the union membership rejected Friday would have increased teacher salaries by 3.2 percent over three years. The contract also includes a $250 “return to work” incentive for all teachers. That amount will be paid in a lump sum in September paychecks. A $500 bonus will be paid to each teacher next year.

It’s easy to skim that paragraph and wonder how such a bitter, protracted labor stoppage could result from what appear today to be relatively small percentages at issue. However, what’s most important there is not the amount of money but instead its source; that is, whether salary increases were to be funded by local tax revenue or state appropriations. While that 95% figure of teacher pay covered by the state appears pretty robust, history shows that this ratio is far from typical. And thanks to what the highest court in Washington has repeatedly found to be the state legislature’s abdication of its constitutional duties, teacher strikes remain a perennial problem in school districts across the state.

Here’s why. You’re probably aware of the general idea that property taxes, as assessed by cities and local governments, fund public schools. While it is true that local tax revenue helps to fund education, it would be a very bad idea to make this the only source of school funding, because voters, despite professing their support for a strong, well-funded public school system, are fundamentally greedy, greedy, miserly people generally act in their own self-interest and, when actually asked, do not much care to voluntarily and repeatedly hike their own taxes to accomplish that goal. Unless someone or something else intervenes in the funding process, eventually, taxpayers will revolt.

This is precisely what happened to the Seattle School District in 1975, when voters rejected an onerous double levy that would have paid for improvements to deteriorating facilities, the acquisition of additional textbooks, and long-overdue pay increases for teachers and staff. At the time, the “solution” the state afforded to Seattle and other school districts that needed to make up for budget shortfalls was to “allow” those districts to hold special local elections to plead for even higher local levies, which, hahahaha, okay, your constituents rejected one tax increase, but I’m sure they’ll totally agree to a more sizeable one if it you tell them it’s the subject of a special election. Recognizing that the “choice” available to it was equal parts illusory and moronic, Seattle did what all sensible parties do in the United States when they run out of options: it sued, claiming that the state of Washington had failed to meet its duty under Article IX of the state constitution to provide “ample funding for education through a general and uniform system of public schools.”

Which, sure. This variety of harebrained, theory-driven, completely-off-the-wall lawsuit reeks of desperation, and we intuitively sense that this approach never really works, except when the facts are as stunningly bad as they were here. And sure enough, the Washington Supreme Court unanimously upheld a lower court decision that found that the state government is constitutionally required to fund a “basic education” program “by means of dependable and regular tax resources,” and that, no, forcing school districts to depend for their funding on temporary, local levies that are ultimately “wholly dependent upon the whim of the electorate” does not count. Yes, local school districts can supplement state funding in order to pay additional add-on programs, if they so choose, but the state can’t force school districts to beg residents to pay exorbitantly high tax rates just to keep the classroom doors open.

The landmark Seattle School District v. Washington case, which is frustratingly not available online but (for those of you with, uh, “pro bono” Westlaw passwords) can be found at 585 P.2d 71, marked a turning point in education funding in Washington; since then, the state legislature has acted to successfully provide a world-class public education accessible to all students via the adoption of an innovative and forward-thinking program that allows for hahahaha, just kidding, of course this has continued to be an unmitigated disaster. Instead, the legislature responded to Seattle School District by enacting the Levy Lid Act of 1977, which purported to limit the amount of local tax revenues that could be spent on basic education services to a certain percentage of education funds that the district receives from state and federal sources. In theory, this would ensure that no individual district goes broke trying to scrape together cash to buy textbooks and make teacher payroll and whatnot. However, while in 1977 the levy lid stood at a very sensible 10%, subsequent amendments caused the lid to nearly triple to 28% by 2010, and 90 (!!!) districts that traditionally relied on hefty local levies in place before the 1977 law continue to operate on these “grandfathered-in” levy lids of up to 38%. Hilariously, the state legislature, apparently unaware of the logic underlying Seattle School District and/or the existence of the Internet as a tool for disseminating information about bad things that occurred in the past in order to ensure that those bad things don’t happen again, sagely noted that the most recent increase, enacted in 2010, was specifically designed to reduce the risk of district insolvency. In other words, over a thirty-year period, the legislature’s best solution to the problem was to…recreate the problem all over again.

So, in 2007, they ran it back. Several Washington families again sued the state on behalf of their children enrolled in public schools, again alleging that the state had failed to fulfill its constitutional duty to adequately fund a basic program of education. And again, the facts presented at trial ended up making the legislature look very, very bad. A state-commissioned report, first officially published in January 2010 and later characterized by the Washington Supreme Court as “bleak,” declared that (all emphasis still mine)

Reform is no longer an optional undertaking in order to improve educational outcomes. School districts use most of their local revenues (largely levy and equalization) to hire extra staff and make up for shortfalls in transportation, operating costs, supplies, special education services, and state salary allocations, [and m]ost of these costs are clearly a state responsibility….Funding studies have already confirmed that our state pays for too few instructional and operating staff, that our salary allocations are no longer consistent with market requirements, and that operating costs are woefully underfunded.

Yikes. The opinion goes on to note and then promptly dismiss as insufficient a few incremental budget increases for things like reductions in K-3 class sizes and the provision of voluntary full-day kindergarten, noting that these legislative acts were ultimately dwarfed by across-the-board nine-digit education budget cuts and significant reductions in state funding available for teacher salaries. Thus, the Court, probably exhausted and irritated at having to repeat itself all the damn time, held in McCleary v. Washington that the legislature had again failed to fund public education via “dependable and regular tax sources,” and that the state government could not continue to blithely rely on non-state funds to fulfill state responsibilities.

In a brief but probably-glorious moment of judicial catharsis, the majority opinion went out of its way to scoff at the state’s aforementioned moronic argument that “allowing” local districts to ask its residents to pay special taxes is the same as…actually funding education. The Court sensibly noted that mandating dependence on property taxes to fund schools has serious consequences for the quality of public education available to students in lower-income areas, even in the unlikely event that those “property-poor” districts successfully manage to max out their local levy capacity in the first place. Thus (internal citations and footnotes omitted, and all emphasis mine):

The fact that local levy funds have been at least in part supporting the basic education program is inescapable…The trial evidence does not show that increases in local funding went strictly to providing “enhancements” to “basic education.” Instead, 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.

After extensive review over many years, state task forces and committees have concluded that the K-12 funding system is broken…We do not believe this conclusion comes as a surprise. Rather, the evidence in this case confirms what many educational experts and observers have long recognized: fundamental reforms are needed for Washington to meets its constitutional obligation to its students. Pouring more money into an outmoded system will not succeed.

Boom, roasted. Perhaps the state’s only victory in the midst of this evisceration was the Court’s decision to withhold the imposition of a judicial remedy and to instead allow the state legislature to try (again) to pull it together and actually fix public education funding. However, in an outcome that can only be described as shocking given the their otherwise-stellar track record in this arena, the state legislature failed to make any meaningful progress toward this goal over a three-year period. Thus, the Court in August finally threw up its hands and took the remarkable step of imposing contempt-of-court fines of $100,000 for each day that the state continues to fail to act. The blistering language of the sanctions order makes it clear just how fed up the justices really are with this whole thing (emphasis mine, as usual):

Given the gravity of the State’s ongoing violation of its constitutional obligation to amply provide for public education, and in light of the need for expeditious action, the time has come for the court to impose sanctions. A monetary sanction is appropriate to emphasize the cost to the children, indeed to all of the people of this state, for every day the State fails to adopt a plan for full compliance with article IX, section 1 [of the state constitution].

So there you have it. Numerous state courts have found that the Washington legislature has repeatedly failed to do its job of funding public education, and as a result, the state is paying something like $3 million a month (ironically, into an education fund) until its legislators manage to differentiate between their head and, well, you know, anatomy class is hard. Meanwhile, the reason we pore over this saga in excruciating detail is because it’s impossible to fully understand the most recent high-profile Washington teacher strike, which is going on in (you’re not going to believe this) Seattle, unless you understand how we got here in the first place. And, sure enough, noted public union fanzine The Wall Street Journal (all emphasis mine, still) has the scoop on what’s at issue.

Seattle’s teachers went six years without a cost-of-living raise after the Legislature failed to come up with money for them, but the district said it provided raises totaling 8% out of local levy money in that time. The paltry raises have made it tough to live in Seattle, where the cost of living has been rising thanks in part to the influx of highly paid tech workers, many teachers say.

Fortunately, Seattle news outlets began to report Tuesday that the sides had arrived at a tentative agreement, and that classes across the district would begin for students on Thursday. This is great news (though, as noted earlier, I know it does not appear as such for the students who were hoping for an Endless Summer of their own). But it’s a temporary resolution of a still-unaddressed problem, and this victory of sorts should not obscure the unresolved, ongoing question of how education funding in Washington works (or does not work) in the first place. And Seattle teachers are not alone. The WSJ notes another ongoing strike, this one in Pasco, WA, and the nonprofit Washington Freedom Foundation provides a decidedly depressing overview of the unfortunately lengthy history of education work stoppages in the state.

Everyone dreads a teacher strike. Kids fall behind in class, school districts spend money they don’t have on legal fees and building security, and, horror of horrors, parents can never line up childcare in time. As frustration mounts and days stretch into weeks, it’s tempting to grouse that the teachers who walk out are letting their students and their communities down. But Seattle School District and McCleary demonstrate that teachers in Washington aren’t to blame. That lies instead with an unaccountable state legislature that has repeatedly failed to implement a system that adequately funds public schools and pays those teachers what they’re worth.

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