Why the Superintendent Should Not Blackmail the Legislature with the Threat of Closing Schools

Why the Superintendent Should Not Blackmail the Legislature with the Threat of Closing Schools

On June 9, 2016, Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction, Randy Dorn, submitted a brief to the Washington Supreme Court urging them to shut down all public schools in Washington state in order to blackmail the legislature into complying with their constitutional "Paramount Duty" to fully fund our public schools. As at least one candidate for Superintendent, Chris Reykdal, has praised Randy for taking this action, I want to explain why I think closing our schools is harmful to our kids and why if I am elected Superintendent, I will do everything in my power to oppose closing our public schools. There are better options that do not involve holding our children hostage. If you agree, please share this important article with other parents and teachers.


I realize that our State has among the lowest school funding and highest class sizes in the nation - with an average of 32 kids per class. Our teachers are the fourth lowest paid in the nation. Over half of our schools do not have enough qualified math and science teachers. Over half of our schools do not meet the health codes or earthquake safety standards. Over the past 10 years, no one has been more critical of our state legislature's grotesque failure to fund our schools than me. I agree that something must be done to restore school funding. But there are several problems with closing our public schools. The first of these problems is what kind of message it will send to our children about how little we care about them and their schools. My mom always told me "Two wrongs do not make a right." Just because the legislature has committed one crime against our kids by failing to fund our schools does not give our courts or the Superintendent the right to commit another crime against our kids by closing their schools. We can and must fund another way to immediately restore school funding.


Let's begin by looking at the argument being used by Dorn, Reykdal and others in favor of closing schools. They point out that after July 1, 1976, when the New Jersey court shut down schools, the New Jersey legislature passed a state income tax 8 days later. Dorn and Reykdal have claimed that the reason Washington state cannot fund schools is due to a lack of an income tax and/or lack of a capital gains tax. They reason that shutting down the schools in Washington state would put political pressure on Washington legislators to pass an income tax and/or a capital gains tax in our state.

There are several problems with this argument. First, the fact that school funding in Washington is now the lowest in the nation is NOT because of a lack of an income tax or the lack of a capital gains tax. In 1982, Washington had among the highest school funding in the nation - and we did not have an income tax or capital gains tax then. The reason school funding has plunged in Washington state is because the Washington legislature now gives away more than 700 tax exemptions to wealthy corporations totally more than $36 billion per year. It is basic math. We cannot allow our legislature to give away billions in tax breaks every year and still have enough money to fund our schools. But instead of dealing with the real cause of our school funding crisis, many in Olympia would rather blame the lack of an income tax.

Second, the income tax enacted in New Jersey in 1976 does not actually go towards increasing school funding. Instead, it is required by law to be used to reduce property taxes in New Jersey. Ironically, 30 years after passing property tax relief, property taxes in New Jersey are still the highest in the nation. Also, the New Jersey income tax did not actually solve the school funding problem in New Jersey. Just 5 years later, in 1981, there was another school funding lawsuit in New Jersey. The second lawsuit lasted for 9 more years until 1990. In 1997, after a tax payer revolt, the New Jersey Supreme Court had to step in again. It was only in 2009, after 20 NJ Supreme Court rulings that the Court found that the NJ legislature had complied with the New Jersey Constitution.

But no sooner had the ink dried on the new school funding plan when a new Governor named Chris Christie, slashed a billion dollars from the NJ school budget - causing the schools to go back to court in 2010. In 2016, Christie even threatened to shut down schools in New Jersey due to a lack of money. So the education funding problems remain in New Jersey despite the 1976 school closure and despite the adoption of a state income tax. Do we really want 40 more years of constant litigation and finger pointing in Washington state before our schools are fully funded?

Third, there is the amount of money needed. According to the latest Public Education Finances Report, Table 12, New Jersey spends 5% of its income on its public schools (second in the nation) while Washington spends 3% of income on its public schools (46th in the nation). The difference of two percent may not seem like much. But because one percent of Washington revenue is about $3 billion per year, it would take an increase in school spending in our state of $6 billion per year just to match New Jersey school spending. This does not include school construction. Washington state also has the highest school construction backlog in the nation at $30 billion. It would take $3 billion more per year times 10 years just to give every child in our state a safe and healthy school to attend. So we need $9 billion in additional revenue per year to restore school funding in our state and lower class sizes. If we believe that our State Constitution also requires full funding for Higher Education and Vocational Training, then we need another $3 billion - for a total of $12 billion. A state income tax like Initiative 1098 (rejected by the Washington voters by a 2 to 1 margin a couple of years ago) would only raise one billion dollars per year. A capital gains tax proposed by Reykdal would also only raise one billion dollars per year.

Meanwhile repealing 300 to 700 tax breaks would raise $16 billion to $32 billion per year. So it is absurd to be threatening to close schools and talking about an income tax and capital gains tax when both of these things ignore the real problem and would only raise a very small fraction of the revenue needed even if they did through some miracle pass in the Washington state legislature.


Some have also tried to compare our state to Kansas where the Supreme Court recently threated to shut down schools if the state legislature did not provide more money. In Kansas, they are only arguing over about $100 million which is only one percent of what we need here in Washington state. Kansas spends 3.7% of revenue on schools (26th in the nation). So even if the Kansas legislature did not spend a single additional penny on their schools, they still would be spending much more on their schools than the Washington legislature spends on our schools.


The bottom line is that school funding in New Jersey is almost twice as much as Washington state and school funding in Kansas is 20% higher than Washington state. So Washington is not New Jersey and we are not even Kansas. Our school funding crisis is much worse than either one of those states. So if schools were closed in Washington state, the legislature would have to come up with billions of dollars more than either the New Jersey legislature or the Kansas legislature before school funding in our state would be constitutional.

The third problem with closing our schools is political reality versus wishful thinking. The political reality of the Washington State legislature is that, despite a direct order from our Supreme Court to pay a $36 million per year fine for violating the constitutional rights of one million children to a decent education, the 2016 Washington legislature refused to pay the fine - which was only $36 per child - despite having more than one billion dollars in their Rainy Day Slush Fund. If the State legislature refuses to pay $36 million per year, there is no chance in hell that they are going to find a way to provide $9 billion in additional funding next year - or any other year! Instead of increasing school funding like they did in New Jersey, Washington is much more likely to follow in the footsteps of Ohio where after 18 long years of litigation, from 1991 to 2009, the Ohio Supreme Court threw in the towel. Shortly after, school funding in Ohio was cut by nearly one billion dollars.


Today, many in the Washington state legislature, including Chris Reykdal, have boasted that they have increased school funding by nearly $5 billion during the past few years. In fact, all they have really done is shuffled funds around from one account to another. The fact is that in the past 4 years, since our Supreme Court declared that the legislature had failed to fully fund our schools, the number of students in our schools has increased by more than 32,000 - but the number of teachers has declined by more than one thousand! Every year our school funding crisis has gotten worse!

In fact, it is likely that the 2017 legislature is going to cut funding for schools instead of raising it. Why? There is something called the Levy Cliff which is a $400 million automatic cut which is almost certain to take place in April 2017. This will mean that 4,000 teachers will have to be laid off in May 2017 - with half of those firings occurring in Levy Dependent King County.

To make matters worse, the 2017 legislature is also likely to pass what is called the Levy Swap, another scam Reykdal is in favor of, which would transfer one billion dollars from school districts in King County to school districts in other counties. This would lead to the loss of another 1,000 teachers in King County in May 2017.

What a minute. Didn't the Teachers Union endorse Reykdal? Sadly, they did - despite the fact that Reykdal voted against the teacher "Cost of Living Adjustment" in 2013 costing teachers about $300 million per year in lost wages (See 2013 House Bill 2043). There is a need for new leadership in the Teachers Union just like there is a need for new leadership in State Government. If Reykdal is elected Superintendent, the teachers will have no one but themselves to blame when thousands of teachers are fired next May and the school funding crisis is continued for four more years.


The fourth problem with closing schools in an attempt to blackmail the legislature into increasing school funding is that the legislature may actually increase school funding by one or two billion dollars. But they will do it not by an income tax or capital gains tax but by gutting other essential state services - like cutting one billion dollars from the Higher Education budget - the last large sum of money that is not protected.


The legislature has gotten very good at robbing Peter to pay Paul. The perfect example of how dishonest and corrupt our State legislature has become is the recently passed 4 year "Official State Budget". Here is the link to this deceptive document: http://www.erfc.wa.gov/budget/documents/20160518_Outlook.pdf

The legislature had the audacity to refer to this report as a reason why our Supreme Court should stop fining them. The report claims that K-12 spending will increase from $8.7 billion in Fiscal 2016 (which begins on July 1 2016 and is the 2016-2017 school year) to $9.9 billion in Fiscal 2019 (which is the 2019-2020 school year). On paper, this appears to be an increase in school funding of $1.2 billion per year. There are two problems with this increase. First, It is only 10% of what is actually needed. Second, like everything else in Olympia, it is completely fake. If you scroll down the page to the Projected Ending Balance, you will see that the Fiscal 2016 End Fund Balance is more than one billion dollars. But by Fiscal 2019, the End Fund Balance is a NEGATIVE $300 million for a loss of $1.3 billion. The problem with losing $1.3 billion is that our State Treasurer and the Bond Market would have a fit. Washington's credit rating would plummet. But more important, the Washington State Constitution prohibits going into this kind of debt. Our State is not allowed to have a negative ending balance.


Once again, the school funding crisis in our state is getting worse not better.


The fifth and final problem of closing schools and hoping the legislature will pass an income tax or capital gains tax is that it does not deal with the underlying cause of our school funding crisis - which is that our state legislature is currently giving away $36 billion in tax breaks to billionaires and wealthy multinational corporations. A basic principle of problem solving is that an effective longterm solution must not only solve the problem but it must also address the underlying cause of the problem.

In short, there are many problems with closing our public schools. Instead of closing schools, we should be closing corporate tax loopholes and ending corporate welfare.


Thankfully, there is a much better option. Rather than continuing to beg the legislature to fully fund our schools, if I am elected Superintendent, I will go around the legislature and directly to our Supreme Court asking them to repeal every tax break passed by the legislature since 1996 (which was the last year school funding in our state was above the national average). Our Supreme Court cannot write new laws. But they certainly can and have many times declared unconstitutional laws to be null and void. This would immediately provide more than $16 billion per year which would allow us to build hundreds of schools, hire thousands of teachers and cut class sizes in half so that struggling students could finally get the help they need to succeed in school and succeed in life. In addition, it would pay for four full years of free higher education and/or vocational training for every student in Washington state.

But isn't it the Paramount Duty of the State Legislature to amply fund our schools?
All of my opponents have claimed that it is not the duty of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to fully fund our schools. It is only the duty of the State Legislature. However, if you take a very close look at Article 9, Section 1 of the Washington State Constitution, you will discover that it does not assign the Paramount Duty to amply fund schools to the State legislature. Instead, the Paramount Duty is the duty of the entire State.


The State includes not only the State legislature but also the Governor and the Superintendent of Public Instruction. It is therefore not only one of the duties of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to make sure our schools are fully funded - but it is the Paramount Duty of the Superintendent to make sure our schools are fully funded. The Superintendent has just as much responsibility for funding our schools as the state legislature!

Does the Superintendent have the legal authority to ask the Supreme Court to repeal illegal tax breaks for wealthy multinational corporations?
According to my opponents, the Superintendent of Public Instruction is merely a figurehead with no real power - merely a cheerleader for school funding. But that is not what the drafters of our state constitution intended. They were afraid that a corrupt state legislature might not fully fund our schools. So they created a separately elected Superintendent of Public Instruction who was given the duty to supervise ALL MATTERS related to public schools. The phrase ALL MATTERS includes the matter of fully funding our schools.


Wouldn't repealing billions in tax breaks cost jobs?
No. Numerous studies have shown that tax breaks for wealthy corporations do not create jobs - they cost jobs by taking money out of our economy and putting in the hands of a few billionaires. Look at Boeing. They have been given billions in tax breaks and what did they do with all of this money? They used it to build an airplane plant in South Carolina - which will eventually take away more than 100,000 jobs!


Meanwhile, cutting tax breaks by $16 billion would create hundreds of thousands of urgently needed living wage jobs right here in Washington state - building hundreds of schools and staffing them with thousands of teachers.


Close Schools or Close Tax Loopholes... The Choice is Up to You!
Einstein once said that the definition of insanity was repeating the same mistakes over and over again and expecting a different result. This is what the current election for Superintendent is about - whether we will continue down the pathway towards closing schools - or whether we will have the political courage to close tax loopholes and require wealthy corporations to pay their fair share of state taxes so our kids can get the education they need and deserve.


We have been begging the legislature for more than 20 years to restore school funding and every year it has only gotten worse. It is time for the begging to stop. Our kids deserve better than this.


It is time for a different approach. Its past time to end the gridlock, excuses and delays in Olympia. Our kids simply cannot afford another 4 years of the highest class sizes in the nation. As a person who has spent more than 20 years teaching courses in Problem Solving, I will bring urgently needed new leadership to Olympia. As always, we look forward to your questions and comments.

Regards, David Spring M. Ed.

Candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction