by Marilyn Watkins
Whether delighted or appalled at the outcome of November’s national elections, pretty much everyone agrees good schools are important. Every kid deserves a shot at opportunity, regardless of the color of their skin, the income of their parents, or the zip code of their residence.
Beyond that basic human right, businesses and our economy depend on educated workers and consumers. Our democracy and the well-being of future generations depend on engaged and knowledgeable voters. Our state has a proud tradition of leadership and innovation in music, technology, and science that we want to continue. All of these are rooted in good schools.
Most people also would agree that collectively, we need to do a far better job at equalizing educational opportunity for children of color and kids from low-income communities – from ensuring every child gets the lifelong benefits of early nurture and care, to keeping kids motivated in school through high school graduation, and preparing our young people to succeed in higher education and good jobs.
But start getting into the specifics of what makes schools good and how to achieve that, and agreement breaks down fast.
130 years ago – when farming, logging, and fishing were the drivers of our economy, before airplanes or computers existed, and when higher education was a luxury most could do without – the folks who wrote Washington’s state constitution named providing public schools for every child the first and most important duty of state government. Today, most family-wage jobs require some higher education, too.
Governor Inslee’s budget proposal lays out a reasonable strategy to upgrade our education system. It starts with the state paying teachers as the courts have ordered (rather than relying on local levies), and promoting effective teaching with more competitive salaries and on-going training. It includes smaller classes for younger kids, more school nurses and counselors, and other supports for struggling students. It also expands access to early learning and higher education, renews investment in mental health services, and assures a solid base of support for basic family services.
All of this costs money. Inslee’s budget raises new revenue primarily by: 1) requiring the wealthiest households and corporations – who currently enjoy the lowest tax rates – to pay a little more through a capital gains tax and higher rates on business services, and 2) ensuring the heaviest polluters offset more of their costs to society through a carbon tax. It also closes a few of the more egregious tax breaks on the books. It’s a pretty good plan, given the limitations of Washington’s outdated, hole-ridden tax structure.
Despite the high public support for education, the response from Republicans in the state Senate has been discouraging. Apparently, they imagine we can somehow attract and retain the best teachers without paying them a living wage, ensure smaller class sizes without more classrooms and teachers, and make sure kids are ready to learn despite a lack of quality early learning slots, diminished access to good health care, and thousands of families struggling with financial insecurity.
Democrats Inslee, Hillary Clinton, and Senator Patty Murray won easy majorities in the statewide vote, but Washington’s legislative districts are winner take all, like the electoral college in presidential elections. With Democratic voters heavily concentrated in the urban districts, Republicans still hold a one vote majority in our state Senate, meaning they control all the committees and hold veto power over any legislation and the state budget.
It’s true our political system depends on compromise, but that needs to be a two-way street – and why would we even consider compromising on our kids’ futures?
Inslee’s budget proposal is pragmatic rather than bold. Bipartisan commissions have concluded we need to raise at least $4 billion in additional revenue for K-12 education in the next 2-year budget to meet the minimum requirements of the McCleary decision. Inslee has proposed that same amount be stretched to cover improvements in early learning, higher ed, mental health, and other services as well. His budget still doesn’t address lower class sizes in upper grades, adequately expand access to quality affordable childcare, or fully fund college grants for students from low income families.
It’s time to get bold.
Our state constitution declares it the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for all our kids. And while the election may be over, our responsibilities as participants in our democracy continue.
Let’s do more than just provide just the bare minimum the State Supreme Court will allow. Let’s double down on our investments in quality child care and early learning, speed up the timetable on K-12 enhancements, and vastly expand access and affordability in our higher ed system. Additional funding for education from early learning through college could be provided by lifting the 1% limit on property tax growth, paired with rebates or credits for low and moderate income homeowners and renters.
Providing equitable educational opportunity for all our kids also includes passing comprehensive and fully funded paid family and medical leave, so every child gets the lifelong benefits of early nurture and care without leaving young families destitute (more on that in a later column). Paid family and medical leave – not only for new parents, but also for people caring for aging family members or with their own serious health condition – could be fully funded through small payroll premiums of about $2 per week for the typical workers.
South Seattle residents should demand that their legislators push leadership in the House of Representatives to go bolder. In these dark times for our nation, we can’t limit our own vision of a just society with vibrant diverse communities and true opportunities to pursue happiness for all. We won’t get out of the darkness without hope and light.
Marilyn Watkins is policy director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a nonpartisan policy center focused on building and economy that works for everyone.
Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to Tax Credits/Flickr