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In defense of local levies: More than money, they connect us to ourselves.

May 26, 2017


school image

The State Legislature’s 2017 overtime sessions have moved into ‘warning light’ territory. The debate over how to fully fund our state’s paramount duty of public education is finally consuming the full energy of legislators and testing the patience of the public. As the pressure intensifies, my fear is that in the rush to reach a deal, any deal, the innocent victim may be the lowly, chastised, unglamorous local levy.

I believe in the value of local levies. I argued in a February of 2015 blog post  about funding models in Massachusetts and other states and that we must maintain a high level of local engagement in our educational finance system. Local levies bring that connection to life.

Just because Olympia has abused local levies by supplanting local dollars for state obligations does not mean that local levies should be eliminated or even severely reduced. The bad actor in this deal is Olympia, not local communities. We can eliminate an overreliance on local levies to fund basic education by making sure local dollars cannot be used for basic education. Period.

At a philosophical and ideological level, I believe that if we eliminate meaningful roles for local levies in funding our schools, we risk losing part of the soul of what makes communities shine in unique ways. By in effect disconnecting businesses, parents, teachers, students from a financial relationship with the local elementary school down the block, we disconnect ourselves from our own children’s education.

In my view, we will one day come to regret–deeply and seriously– a highly concentrated, top down, state-centric funding model for our 1.1 million school kids. It is ironic that since 1889 our state’s strong constitutional language about funding education has not led to a higher level of funding than other states. States with locally funded systems generally lead to higher quality educational outcomes.

The Seattle Times argues in a recent editorial that local levies should pay for sports uniforms and playground equipment and other such needs.  I understand that viewpoint but believe it misses the depth of the deeper nuance and appreciation of the intangible connection that local levies represent in small towns and big cities alike. They help us embrace a meaningful local contribution to our local schools and, in turn, our children’s future. By outsourcing almost the entire financial relationship of education away from our hometowns to state government, we sanitize our connection and divorce ourselves from local needs. If levies are solely about sports uniforms and playground equipment, we may find ourselves far removed from the fiduciary financial side of managing one of our most important public institutions.

The McCleary lawsuit’s ruling on local levies has been distorted.  The state Supreme Court does not call for the elimination of local levies. It calls for the elimination of the Legislature’s unconstitutional retreat from fully funding the paramount duty and hiding behind local levies to skip out on sending money from Olympia to 295 school districts.  It calls for an end to the state using local dollars to supplant what is obligated from Olympia. Because Olympia has failed to meet their obligations does not mean local communities should be prevented by Olympia from using additional local levies for non basic education needs that further strengthen local schools.

In allowing local levies to continue, there is no question that there must be rock solid, firm guardrails and categorical restrictions against using local levy dollars to fund basic education. We cannot allow a McCleary 2.0. We cannot allow local dollars to supplement basic education teacher compensation. But an authentic partnership between local and state funding is not inconstant with a modern, 21st Century model nor is it unconstitutional.

Go back to the original spirit of local levies: Local dollars raised locally to meet additional local needs. Those needs go far beyond playground equipment. A robust state-funded ‘basic education’ should mean a high quality educational system that makes us proud as a state. But a well funded top-down, state-centric model is not inconsistent with allowing local communities to define additional needs for themselves. That may include additional enhancements such as additional tutoring, mentoring, technology, arts, music, civics, weekend classes, travel to cultural institutions, summer learning, weekend programming for high risk students and, yes, sports uniforms. Current debate of allowing local levies of between 10% in the GOP plan and 24% in the Democratic plan misses the more profound philosophical point. The numbers are arbitrary. The philosophy is not.

As long as the state maintains it’s obligations to fully fund basic education, and as long as we maintain absolute, strict and unequivocal prohibitions against the use of local levy funds to supplement basic education and teacher salaries, why should there be any limits on the total amount of local levies that local communities can invest in their schools?

If the Legislature eliminates the ability of local communities to adopt local school levies beyond the state’s basic education funding, many communities will actively and aggressively move to invest additional dollars through local community levies to supplement our children but it will be done outside of the structure of our educational system.  It will be less accountable, transparent and will ultimately lead to an even more balkanized system.  And it will be of the state’s making.

As we restructure our educational finance system, we must not be swept away by the short term political narrative and pretend that 147 legislators in Olympia can effectively manage 1.1 million school kids in 295 unique local districts with robotic uniformity.  We must both fully fund basic education from Olympia and allow additional local investment that meets local needs locally.

We are so much more than what we’ve become.

Your partner in service,






5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 26, 2017 12:07 pm

    Some of the best school districts in America are in states where the local taxes are the primary source of funding. It brings the community together in ways we do not see in Washington. Couple this with some real assessments that each community has the truce ability to measure the effectiveness of their schools and you seem to get far better results than we see here.

  2. Kathleen S. permalink
    May 26, 2017 6:30 pm

    Thank you for speaking out.

    I agree with you on many points. The unintended consequences of McCleary are unimaginable, in my mind. As you stated, it is impossible for 147 individuals in Olympia to predict the manner in Washington’s communities will be impacted.

    Compounding the problem, we must note the uncertainty in which federal dollars will be distributed and the impact it will have on Washington’s schools and communities

    I understand and appreciate the sentiment in Olympia of those that do not want levy dollars used to pay for basic education. Yet, the Superintendent of Public Instruction asserts that “Reykdal, however, said that the state Supreme Court hasn’t ruled that school districts are prohibited from using levy money for employee salaries.” As well, the attorney that filed the McCleary lawsuit shared similar sentiments.

  3. Charles Hoff permalink
    May 26, 2017 7:08 pm

    The more remote the source of funds the more likely it is to be poorly utilized.

    I believe that the expectation that “Someone else will pay” is a significant factor in the poor results we are getting. Our schools have become very expensive daycare centers. Many people in my neighborhood cannot even tell me what school district they live in. They either blindly support, or oppose, levies.

    Having lived in states with better achievement results, and where local funding is a very significant portion of school’s income, I find it easy to see why. No skin in the game extends well beyond taxation.

  4. Kathleen S. permalink
    May 27, 2017 2:14 pm

    One must consider levy funding in relation to special education. One school district testified and called the R plan a special ed. liability.

  5. May 27, 2017 2:34 pm

    Does anyone believe that “fully funded” will end the discussion on “Ample?” I have yet to find any definition of this when it comes to education. This seems to be an endless request to fill a barrel with no bottom.

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