Washington’s K-12 school funding and the rising costs of expanded services

Courtesy Sen. Brad Hawkins

OLYMPIA - Washington state supports over 1.1 million students in its public schools by providing funding to each school district based on enrollment. Our state Constitution designates education as our paramount duty—in other words, our top priority.
When it comes to the full funding of basic education in our state, we’ve seen many disagreements. A decades-long debate in the 1980s and 1990s eventually resulted in a major lawsuit, known as the McCleary case. As you may recall, the State Supreme Court issued its McCleary decision in 2012, bringing significant changes to Washington state school funding.
Our school funding system was already complicated prior to the McCleary decision, and it remains difficult to understand. Generally speaking, school districts receive state funding based on the total students enrolled in their districts. School districts also receive funding from local and federal sources and can apply for various grants to support expanded services.
While state and federal funding is allocated in government budgets, local funding to school districts is provided by voters through community-approved property tax levies. For many years, school districts had been using local levy dollars to supplement their state and federal funding, some arguing that increasing levy amounts were necessary due to insufficient state dollars.
After the State Supreme Court issued its McCleary decision, the Legislature responded by significantly increasing state funding while implementing strict caps on levy requests to protect property owners. The Legislature later removed the cap on school levies, which I did not support. This allowed school districts to request significantly more local funds despite the recent increases in state dollars. As a result, per-student funding (in state and local dollars) continues to increase each year even after increased state funding was directed to districts following the McCleary decision.
Ten years ago, for example, in the 2012-13 school year, districts received $8,742 per student in state and local dollars. For the 2022-23 school year, school districts will receive approximately $15,462 per student.
Services during this time have also greatly expanded. As a result of changing state policies, increased public expectations and individual school board decisions, many school districts are now providing a range of meal, childcare, social/emotional support, healthcare and early learning services in addition to their K-12 academic responsibilities. There is no doubt that many needs exist within our communities and student population, but the question of who should be providing these services is open to debate.
While I am a strong supporter of education, it is reasonable to question whether school districts can efficiently provide such expanded services while fulfilling their seemingly fundamental responsibility as academic institutions. With all the changes over the last several years, and more proposed this session by some lawmakers, it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate where a school district’s responsibilities end and where a family and community’s responsibilities begin.
This presents challenging dynamics for education policy and funding obligations as well as philosophical debates related to personal responsibility, parental control, and government’s role. As school districts continue to expand the services they provide, it will also become more and more difficult to ever “fully fund” education because so many responsibilities are being transitioned into our schools. This leads to expanded levy requests by school districts and increasing impacts on people’s property taxes, which doesn’t seem equitable or sustainable. That seems like the very problem we once had.
Brad Hawkins is the state senator for the 12th District. He serves as the Ranking Member on the Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee. Prior to his election to the Legislature, he served as a board member for the North Central Educational Service District and the Eastmont School District.

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