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Friday, September 8, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

What's the right thing to do? Devote more state money to schools

Special to The Times

Helping kids has been the focus of my community volunteer work. The universal question I have asked youth when they are confronted with a dilemma is: What's the right thing to do? They starve for the question and nourish themselves with their response. They invariably respond by doing the right thing.

As a new member of the board for the seventh-largest school district in the state, I am asked: What's the right thing to do? Most of the time the question is asked in the context of marshaling limited resources to accomplish what seem to be limitless expectations.

In the mid-1970s, I was a student in Federal Way when the weaknesses of our state education funding system became apparent after consecutive levy failures in several districts. We drifted into a pattern of expecting local tax levies to fund education with less money coming from the Legislature. During this crisis the Legislature was asked: What's the right thing to do? It did nothing.

A judge was then asked: What's the right thing to do? He responded by enforcing the state constitution by ordering the Legislature to breathe life into the words, "It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders ... " and to "provide for a general and uniform system of public schools" through adequate funding.

The result of the ruling was felt quickly. The Legislature passed legislation and the amount funded by local taxes dropped from 23.7 percent in 1977 to 7.9 percent by 1980. The state had done the right thing by following the constitution and the judge's order.

Sadly, though, this percentage has steadily crept back up to 16.24 percent in 2004-05, the latest available figure.

In the past 20 years, the portion of the state budget spent on education has shrunk by 4.1 percentage points. That may not seem like much, but it amounts to $500 million per year, or about $500 per student. For Federal Way, with its 22,000 students, the reverse would have meant an additional $11 million per year. Instead, Federal Way has been forced to cut $14 million since 2002 while demands from the Legislature continue to rise. Other districts feel the pain, too.

Last session the Legislature was asked again: What's the right thing to do? Its response was to propose raising the levy lid to fund more of education from local taxes. Lawmakers did "tweak" the levy-equalization law, but they also gave teachers raises without funding the full fiscal impact on the districts. This thrust most every district in this state into a budget crisis. For Federal Way, it amounted to a $4.3 million shortfall.

The inequitable funding formula in this state creates "have" and "have-not" districts. Federal Way is a have-not district. Federal Way is the seventh-largest district in the state but ranks 263rd out of 296 districts in dollars-per-student funding. If Federal Way received the average per-student distribution (average, not the most) from state and local revenues, we would have an additional $12 million this school year.

The question is not necessarily whether funding is adequate across the board, but whether the funds allocated by the Legislature for education are fairly disbursed. Our system of funding is not conducive to creating a "general and uniform system of public schools"; it has created a system where some school districts are more equal than others.

The balance of power in Olympia favors the haves and does not care about the have-nots. In other words, policy-makers will be asked: What's the right thing to do, and they will not respond. I guess kids "get it" when they are asked to do the right thing; why can't our legislators and our governor?

In my opinion, the right thing to do will be to bring the state before a judge, again. Our board will make that decision on Tuesday. Maybe a judge will know what the right thing to do is, again. As Yogi Berra said, "It's déjà vu all over again."

I am a fiscal conservative who recoils at the notion that simply adding more money to the pot for schools is a panacea, but I do know with every fiber of my being that it is the "paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders ... " and to "provide for a general and uniform system of public schools" by providing equal funding. It is not only the right thing to do — it's the law.

David A. Larson is a member of the Federal Way School Board and a delegate to the Washington State School Directors' Association's Legislative Assembly. Reach him at dlarson@fwps.org

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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