Legislature shirks duty to fund education

Lawmakers are trying to pass the buck to local taxpayers by giving them the option of higher taxes.

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Public schools are - or, at least, should be - about opportunity.

And this is why state government has a constitutionally mandated duty to fully fund public schools from kindergarten through high school.

Unfortunately, when state government finds itself in a financial pinch (as is the case now), legislators look for ways to shift funding - and responsibility - elsewhere.

They did it again last week. Lawmakers raised the local levy lid for schools from 24 percent to 28 percent. That means school districts can now ask local taxpayers to vote to increase their property tax to the point where the cash collected pays for 28 percent of that district's day-to-day operation.

Ironically, this decision to further push the state's responsibility to the local level comes on the heels of a court ruling in which a judge ruled the Legislature is not fulfilling its constitutional duty to fund basic education.

Yes, schools need more money but asking local taxpayers to dig deeper into their pockets isn't the answer.

Now, we understand the need for local school levies and we have, again and again, recommended voters approve those levies. The money, to this point, pays for programs beyond what many see as basic education.

For example, the Walla Walla School District counts on levy funds approved in 2008 to fund about 14 percent of its budget. This money supports areas such as music, physical education, health services, school safety and athletics.

It, however, is important local funding be limited so education is essentially equal across the state.

The fact is that wealthier areas of the state, places such as Bellevue or Mercer Island, that have very high property values and a huge tax base would be more willing to fund that full 28 percent because the percentage increase in their taxes would be minimal.

Property owners in rural areas such as Walla Walla, Columbia and Garfield counties would see a big increase in their taxes at the 28 percent mark.

As a result, many of these suburban school districts will start getting a lot more local money and rural and urban school districts won't. The gap between the "haves" and the "have nots" will grow.

This is exactly why a levy lid was imposed in the first place.

A public education is supposed to provide an opportunity to all, not just all who can afford it.

Sadly, shirking responsibility is becoming a trend with the current Democrat-controlled Legislature.

Lawmakers have allowed tuition at state universities to be increased by about 30 percent over the past two years. Tuition will continue to go higher in the future as annual double-digit increases initiated by the various universities have gotten the green light from legislators.

It's not right for higher education. Nor is it right for elementary and secondary schools.

Education is among state government's most important responsibility. Lawmakers need to step up to that responsibility, not pass it along to local voters.

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