In a park in Olympia stands a statue of John Rankin Rogers, the third governor of the state of Washington. At its base is a quote by Rogers that is telling of his staunchly populist approach to politics: “I would make it impossible for the covetous and avaricious to utterly impoverish the poor. The rich can take care of themselves.”
When Rogers was governor, from 1897 to 1901, populism was sweeping the nation and manifesting itself in policies that impacted every corner of American life. For Rogers, the central issue of his political career was education. Rogers was disgusted that the state allowed relatively wealthy school districts like those in Seattle and Tacoma to fund their schools with local levies while leaving less affluent, more rural districts to wallow in poverty. As a state representative from Puyallup, Rogers successfully sponsored what became known as the Barefoot Schoolboy Bill, requiring the state to provide $6 of funding for every child in school, which in effect provided rural school districts with their first dedicated stream of funding to ensure their kids got an education. The idea, which proved popular enough to propel Rogers to the governor’s mansion, is considered the state’s first attempt to make good on the article in the state constitution, passed in 1889, establishing education as the paramount duty of the state.
All of this—impoverished rural school districts, rich urban ones, and a debate over how much the state should equalize the two—should sound eerily familiar to anyone following the news these days. More than 120 years after the passage of the Barefoot Schoolboy Bill, the state is again failing at its duty to ensure everyone gets a good education, especially those who live outside the major population centers. In 2012 the State Supreme Court ruled that the state was failing to properly fund schools and forcing districts to rely on local levies to cover basic services, which inevitably creates inequities. Since the ruling, however, there has been a maddening amount of dithering over how to move forward. There’s little question as to why. As departing Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn told Seattle Weekly a few months ago, “The wealthy people move to the districts that have the money and their kids get an advantage.” For those who benefit from this situation, there has been ample—covetous? avaricious?—resistance to change this status quo.
The state needs to get back on track to some Rogers-style, screw-the-rich populism. And we may well get it this year.
When the 2017 legislative session gets underway Monday, lawmakers will have little choice but to make school funding their focus. The Supreme Court has set a hard deadline for 2017 to be the year the state comes up with a plan to fix education funding; proving extra incentive, a temporary state law that allows local districts to tax residents at higher-than-usual rates will expire this year, meaning huge budget holes will appear in districts across the state if the Legislature doesn’t infuse them with lots of money.
The good news is that with such a reckoning upon us, officials are starting to talk solutions. In mid-December Gov. Jay Inslee released an ambitious budget that, as it pertains to education, would use a combination of capital-gains, business and occupation, and carbon taxes to raise billions of dollars to spend on schools. Meanwhile, his plan would cut the local property taxes of 75 percent of Washington residents—some by as much as $250. The remaining 25 percent would see no change—that is, no increase—in their property taxes.
In broad strokes, this seems to be a plan Rogers could get behind. Not only would Inslee’s plan help equalize funding between rich and poor school districts, but it would also be slightly more progressive than the current tax setup, according to the Associated Press—that is, the rich would pay proportionally more and the poor less. (The plan is not, we must say, as progressive as an income tax would be, and thus not as satisfying. But we can forgive Inslee for not going there with this budget, given the unlikelihood of such a thing passing in Washington.)
Inslee’s plan is not the only one that will be on the table this session. Both the Republicans in charge of the Senate and the Democrats in charge of the House will release their own budgets in the weeks to come. What comes out of the session—assuming something comes out of the session—will likely be a mashup of all three.
But what’s important to watch—what must be demanded—is that the state commit to a plan that keeps to the spirit of equity that we committed to more than a century ago and then somehow lost touch with. In a troubling counterpoint to Inslee’s budget plan, Republican Sen. Michael Baumgartner last month proposed a different tack to deal with the Supreme Court ruling: amend the constitution to take out the part about education being the paramount duty of the state.
Baumgartner told The Spokesman-Review in Spokane that the state constitution, written in the late 19th century, is out of date and “poorly equipped to define what basic education is in the 21st century.” We, on the other hand, believe that Washington leaders in the 1800s understood what basic education was better than many of our leaders today.