by Makenzie Graham
A close friend of mine is a dedicated teacher who works with struggling readers at a public school in Seattle. Day in and day out she goes to work with a sense of purpose and drive, motivated by her students’ achievements. By advancing the reading skills of some of the kids who are left the farthest behind in our state, she increases their self-confidence and helps them catch up to their peers.
My friend and her students inspire me to take part in the Seattle Tax March on April 15t h . I march for a future where every child has an equal chance to succeed, regardless of their race, zip code, parents’ socioeconomic status, or gender. I love that I get to call this state my home, but we have yet to attain that future, where high-quality public education contributes to thriving and prosperous communities for all Washingtonians.
Schools like my friend’s, and other low-resource schools in South King County, are among those that are most impacted by Washington’s education funding woes. In the 2012 McCleary Decision, the state Supreme Court ruled that Washington is inadequately funding its schools. Five years later in 2017, we are still spending far less than the state mandates. There are two pathways to fully funding our schools: either we take money away from other vital services like child care and mental health, or we clean up the tax code to increase state revenue.
To achieve excellence within our schools, while also protecting investments in vital social services, we need to revamp our upside-down tax code. Washington’s tax code asks the most from those with the least, while handing out tax breaks that benefit powerful special interests. Washington is one of only eight states that chooses not to collect revenue on profits made from selling stocks and bonds (capital gains); rather, a large majority of our revenue comes from regressive sales, property, and B&O taxes.
The absence of a capital gains tax only benefits those at the top, while costing our states billions of dollars in lost revenue that could be invested in the foundations of a prosperous state, like great schools, good infrastructure, and quality healthcare. On the other hand, sales, property, and B&O taxes disproportionately affect everyone else, including small business owners and working families. Furthermore, these types of taxes are the most difficult to track, and Washington now ranks 49th in the nation for tax transparency.
As it stands now, families making less than $21,000 per year pay 16.8% of their income in taxes, while the highest earners only contribute 2.4%. If we want the best schools for every kid, we need to clean up our tax code to reverse this backwards trend. Those with the least pay the most in taxes, but their kids are not typically the ones who see the benefits in the form of higher quality schools.
Currently, we rely on voter-approved property tax levies and private donations to fund public education, but this type of funding only perpetuates the inequities between high- and low-resource communities. Take, for instance, the school in a northern neighborhood of Seattle that had too many enrollees in its kindergarten classes.
The parents joined together for a fundraiser and raised enough money to pay for the salaries of two new kindergarten teachers, allowing the school to accept all the new students while maintaining smaller class sizes. Not every family can do this, and asking them to do so is unsustainable and unconstitutional.
Sadly, last year, the bond to build new schools in South King County failed, while voters did approve the new youth jail. These acts showed the world that here in Washington, we would rather detain our children than educate them. However, I have hope for our future, and I know that these are not Washington’s true values. We have the chance to lead the nation in excellence in public schools, we just need to pay for it.
Education is one of the great equalizers of our time. Those with higher education tend to have more job opportunities and better health outcomes, while those with lower levels of education fare much worse. Quality schools must not be a luxury only afforded to those who can pay, but should be accessible to every child.
Our tax code, with its 700 breaks and loopholes that only benefit those at the top, tells the rest of the country that Trump is not the only one who favors special deals for corporations and the most powerful. Here in Washington, we need to get rid of these loopholes and instate a capital gains tax so that we’ll have more resources to invest in our education, our communities, and our quality of life. Only by taking this first step in reforming the tax code will we ensure that everyone contributes equitably to the well being of Washington. We can do it!
Makenzie Graham is a MPH Student at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health
Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to 401 (k) 2012/via Flickr