Editorial: Tax reform can help heal our ailing public schools

Once again, we’re watching our school district struggle to find its way out of a yawning financial chasm.

We’re about to see good teachers get laid off, class sizes grow and electives that hardly seem tangential — drama, debate and economics — axed from the high school curriculum.

Those who work at our three public schools are devastated by this latest round of cuts. As Superintendent Michael Soltman told the school board last week, “Anxiety is really, really high. There’s getting to be a lot of tears.”

Why is this happening? In part, it’s due to the recession and the impact that has had on the state’s ability to collect taxes. Other states, too, are suffering.

But Washington is hurting more because of an issue that the state’s political leadership has failed to address year after year after year: A flawed tax structure that virtually guarantees there won’t be enough in the state coffers to adequately fund education.

Washington — a vibrant state that often tops the various best-places-to-live lists — is 44th in the country in state funding per student and 42nd in average class size. We’re at the bottom of the list, right there with Alabama and Mississippi.

What’s particularly ironic is that the Legislature’s latest failure to begin the hard work of tax reform happened weeks after a King County Superior Court judge found the state had failed to meet the state Constitution’s mandate that it “amply” fund basic education. According to our Constitution, such funding is the state’s “paramount duty.” How is the state responding to this judicial decree? It’s appealing.

At the same time that this drama is unfolding, however, another movement is slowly beginning to build. Bill Gates Sr., father of one of the wealthiest men in the world, is leading the charge to pass an initiative that would impose a graduated income tax on individuals who make more than $200,000 a year or couples who make more than $400,000. Gates’ initiative would also cut the state property tax by 20 percent and increase the business-and-occupation tax credit to $4,800.

Ever since he chaired a panel eight years ago on the state’s tax structure, Gates, a highly respected lawyer and civic player, has said tax reform that included the adoption of an income tax is needed to right our financial ship. Last month, at the news conference where he announced his initiative, he noted that this issue has been studied extensively without any action. “So today, this day,” he said, “we’re going to do something.”

Those who care about the fate of our schools can help. We can attend the upcoming PTSA auction. We can give money to the foundation that Soltman and board member Laura Wishik are establishing. (See story on page 9.) We can also advocate for meaningful, long-term tax reform — reform that might put an end to a seasonal cycle of budget cuts that is cutting to the heart of our public school system, the foundation of our shared membership in a civic society.

Like Gates, we can do something.

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