Property Tax Swap or Levy Duty Upshift: Solving WA’s McCleary Decision on School Funding

This article was originally published on the Seattle Homes Blog.

The recent decision by Washington’s Supreme Court on school funding is a complex topic. When it’s broken down to its basics, however, there may be a straightforward solution to a large portion of the financial demands created by the decision.

In a nutshell, the state constitution says that Washington has a paramount duty to fund basic education. The court decided that, currently, the state is not funding basic education adequately.

To be clear: the court said that the state itself is not meeting its obligation in funding basic education. This means that the overall budget for education needs to come from the state, not other sources. While the state property tax and sales tax fund around 70 percent of the education budget, municipalities across the state pick up around 20 percent of the education tab through local levies on property taxes (the federal government covers the rest). There may be some need to increase the total funding for the state, but making sure all funds come through the state will also be a priority.

This is the focal point of the so-called “Property Tax Swap”. If all of the money that local homeowners are paying in levies to their cities was instead being paid to the state and earmarked for schools, the education budget could be funded with those same dollars, but it would be the state supplying the funds it is constitutionally required to provide. It’s essentially a levy duty upshift–putting the responsibility of schools back to the state venue where it was meant to be.

It sounds a bit simplistic, but sometimes that’s the way accounting works. The state can make up a large portion of its lacking education budget by simply taking in a larger state school levy (increasing the current rate on the school levy portion of the property tax), while reducing local school levies by limiting the local rates charged. Statewide, the plan is revenue neutral. There is no additional tax revenue coming from taxpayers statewide as a group, or going to schools–there’s just a larger amount of the money coming from the state to the schools.

There are some side effects that could create dissension. Projections show property owners in wealthier counties or school districts paying more in property taxes than they had before, and vice-versa for lower-income districts. While there is some resistance to that idea, it answers another part of the court’s concern, which is the current uneven distribution of state education funds. The idea has bi-partisan support, as it was first posited by Democrat Ross Hunter, and championed by former Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, during his campaign for Governor. The widespread support is due to the more reliable long-term funding mechanism for education that doesn’t rely on individual districts renewing their local levies every few years.

Just as importantly, it minimizes the funding gap that now exists in the state’s education budget. While there are many other tough decisions to be made in funding the rest of the education budget and satisfying the Supreme Court based on the McCleary decision, this is one fairly painless fix with a big payoff. Taxpayers, on the whole, pay nothing more, and that’s preferable to across-the-board tax hikes to nearly any voter.

REALTOR® groups generally approve of the idea. While we oppose most property tax increases, we support sensible property tax rates that build quality schools and infrastructure. Good schools make for good communities, which is why a predictable long-term source of funding is in the best interest of the real estate industry as well as every individual in the state. Maintaining the current funding source for schools, while reducing the need for state government to increase other taxes, is good for Washington schools and for Washington businesses.