Statewide school levy ‘fix’ has put Tacoma in a fix

Why has the Legislature’s solution to provide more uniform and equitable state education funding left 253 of the state’s 295 school districts facing devastating budget cuts this school year?

A court case in 2012, known as the McCleary decision, found the state to be derelict in its paramount duty to fund basic education. After five years of effort, the Legislature’s ultimate fix to the issues raised by McCleary was to cap local levy dollars in exchange for an influx of more state dollars, in the laudable attempt to end the disproportionate advantage of richer districts and ensure that all districts – especially poorer districts – receive their fair share of state funding.

But this solution overlooked the many innovative ways school districts use local levy investments to offer programs and opportunities not funded by state basic education dollars.

In Tacoma, one of the highest-poverty and most racially-diverse district in the state, these programs have made dramatic progress for the very same underrepresented populations that the Legislature’s fix was meant to support.

The Legislature’s fix will halt this progress in its tracks.

Legislative bodies tend to address public policy issues in discrete silos: health care policy, workforce policy, housing policy. This separation allows for depth and expertise, surely, but sometimes fails to appreciate the interdependent and interconnected ways people most often experience these realities.

This is especially true in education, where student learning, we know, does not occur in a silo. Learning happens at home, at school, and out in the community.

Communities that recognize student success to be the responsibility of us all have long had the choice to invest in student-specific opportunities that reflect the specialized needs of their unique student populations above and beyond what state funding can offer.

Just as learning does not occur in a silo, student populations are not homogenous. Not all students learn the same, and educational programs tailored for students with different needs, and meet them where they are at, can produce significantly positive educational outcomes – in particular, for those who might otherwise be left behind.

Thanks to an extraordinarily supportive community, Tacoma also happens to be one of the state’s greatest success stories, with a graduation rate of 89.3 percent – far surpassing the state average.

Our community has stepped up to fund our local levies at the ballot box, yes, but has also seen community organizations and institutions like ours engage in unprecedented partnerships and programs for students who need more: special education students, early learning students, students speaking English as a second language, students needing learning assistance or remediation, students needing interventions or support services, high-poverty students, high-performing students, summer school students, and more.

An arts education program in partnership with Tacoma Arts Live offering students the opportunity to express their creativity and learn their cultural heritage through theater, music, and dance.

A partnership with Metro Parks Tacoma offering a Whole Child Access Pass that allows a First Creek middle schooler to walk straight from the classroom after school to basketball practice at the Eastside Community Center with as few financial and logistical barriers as possible.

A partnership with Tacoma Housing Authority providing stable housing and supporting student success at McCarver Elementary School.

These and many other programs reflect the reality that the social and emotional health of students and their families is as essential to their learning as anything that takes place in a classroom. And they reflect our fundamental commitment to ensure all Tacoma students, no matter their circumstances, have safe and encouraging environments, are given support and opportunities to achieve, and can pursue excellence along whatever path they choose.

But without action by the Legislature to make the newly-imposed levy cap more flexible, each of these enriching investments and nearly forty others will disappear – not because our community decided we didn’t wish to make them any longer, but because the Legislature has told us we could not.

Without action by the Legislature to allow Tacoma to resolve the $23.3 million budget shortfall the Legislature has created for our students, teachers, personnel and classrooms, the resulting cuts will significantly harm our programs and our students’ opportunities for success.

Surely this cannot be what the Legislature intended when, in the name of fairness and equity, it passed the McCleary fix.

Tacoma’s work as a collaborative and engaged community to invest in closing disparities in outcomes among our racially diverse student population is not just an education success story, it is a civil-rights success story. Ending our ability to maintain the choices we made as a community would not only be a setback for the success of our students, it would be a setback for social justice.

We have been grateful for the leadership of the Tacoma legislative delegation in building recognition among their colleagues of the need to repair the McCleary fix and provide local districts with levy flexibility, and we urge them to continue with this important work by passing House Bill 2140 this session.

We know Tacoma as the City of Destiny. We hope the Legislature will not prevent our community from determining our own destiny with the commitment to give our diverse students the opportunities they each need to determine their own destiny.


Editor’s note: This letter was drafted by community partners David Fischer, Executive Director of Tacoma Arts Live; Kimberly Keith, Executive Director of Hilltop Artists; Kathi Littman, President and CEO of the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation; Shon Sylvia, Executive Director of Metro Parks Tacoma; Tafona Ervin, Executive Director of the Foundation for Tacoma Students. 

An edited version of this article was published in The News Tribune on April 20, 2019