Local Levies – Frequently Asked Questions

By League of Education Voters Policy Team

Across Washington state on February 11, many communities voted on local levies to continue funding for enrichment programs and capital projects at district schools. Here are frequently asked questions about those levies.

1. What is a local levy?

A local property tax passed by voters of a school district that generates revenue for the local school district. All money generated by school district levies goes directly to the school district to pay for enhancements to the state-funded basic education. By voting for a local levy, voters are voting for an additional property tax in their district.

2. How many school districts have a local school levy?

289 of the 295 school districts had a local levy in 2019.

3. What is basic education?

Basic education is the educational program that the state is responsible for funding.

  • The state legislature defines the program of basic education and is required by the constitution to amply fund it. The state defined program of basic education is the minimum that districts are required to provide students — districts may offer additional programming and services with local funds. Currently, the program of basic education includes the number of hours and days of school that districts must offer, academic standards, and specialized instruction for students qualifying for special education, English language support, and students below or above standard academically.
4. What is a levy rate?

A levy rate is the amount of property tax that voters approved to be assessed for every $1,000 of property value. A levy rate of $1.00 means that for every $1,000 of property value, the owner of the property will have to pay $1.00 in taxes.

  • E.g., If a homeowner has a house valued at $200,000 and the voters passed a levy at a $1.00 levy rate, that will cost the homeowner $200 annually in property taxes.
5. Why do districts generate different amounts of levy dollars for passing the same levy rates?

A levy rate of $1.00 in a district with an average property value of $200,000 will generate $200 per household in levy funding, but a district with a $1.00 levy rate and an average property value of $600,000 will generate $600 per household for the same level of property tax. Districts can have the same levy rate, but raise very different amounts of money because the average property value of a district varies widely across Washington.

6. What is the levy lid (cap) that started in January 2020?

The levy rate a district can pass is now capped at $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed value, or a levy rate that would generate $2,500 per student – whichever would result in a lower levy rate.

  • E.g., If a district can raise $2,500 per student with a levy rate of $0.80 per $1,000 then their levy lid is $0.80 because they have reached their maximum per-student amount in levy revenues.
  • E.g., If a district with a levy rate of $2.50 generates $1,000 per student in levy revenues, their levy lid is $2.50 because they have passed a levy at the maximum rate allowed under state law.
7. What restrictions are placed on the use of levy money?

Levy money can’t be used to pay for basic education, but districts are otherwise free to spend the money as they wish. For example, by law, levy funds can’t be used to enhance state-funded base teacher salary for teachers performing basic education duties, but levy money may be used for hiring additional staff or paying teachers for additional duties, such as after-school programming.

  • Currently, a majority of levy dollars are spent on staff compensation. Many districts provide higher salaries for teachers through local contracts for additional time, responsibility, or incentives (TRI). However, many of the responsibilities within these contracts could be considered basic education duties, and often all teachers within a district receive this additional pay. Historically, this practice was common across the state because the state did not provide adequate salary to attract and retain teachers. The new state funding for teacher salaries is intended to address this issue.
  • Levy funds have also been used to supplement other areas of basic education that have been underfunded by the state. Currently, many districts indicate that they still need to use local levy dollars to provide special education services to students that are not fully funded by the state.
8. What impact are the changes in the local levies having on teacher salaries?

Historically, over half of levy funds have been used to supplement staff salaries. With the recent funding changes, state funding has increased substantially for most districts, while local levy funds have been reduced. The increase in state funding for teacher salary was intended to ensure the state was paying the cost of hiring teachers who provide basic education and to free up local levy money to enable districts to provide more educational supports and enrichments for students, which may also include additional staff.

The way districts deploy their levy resources hasn’t changed since the state increased funding, so districts continue to use significant levy resources to increase staff salary above state-funded levels. All additional salary and staffing, such as additional counselors, above state-funded levels must be paid for by districts. Many districts and local bargaining units negotiated salary increases in the fall of 2018 above the state-funded levels, however districts have fewer levy resources available to pay for these increases. So even though most districts had a net influx of education funding, the combined levy and state resources didn’t meet the added costs of the new contracts in some districts.

9. What is Local Effort Assistance (LEA)?

Because of differences in property values, some districts can pass a levy with a tax rate of $0.80 and raise $2,500 per student, while other districts can pass a tax rate of $1.50 and raise only $107 per student. To compensate for the difference in ability to raise money through local levies, the state supplements districts who are able to raise less than $1,550 per student with a max levy of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value by providing additional funding called Local Effort Assistance (LEA). LEA is funded to ease the property tax burden of districts with low property values. It is not funded in a way that makes equitable resources available to districts.

10. How do districts qualify to receive LEA funding?

Districts qualify for LEA if they satisfy the following conditions:

  1. The district would generate less than $1,550 per student with a levy rate of $1.50 in 2020.
  2. Pass a local levy.

Note: Districts are not required to pass their maximum levy in order to receive LEA funding, but they must have an active levy in order to receive LEA funding.

11. How much LEA support will eligible districts receive in 2020?

The amount of LEA funding a district is eligible to receive is determined by how close they come to passing a levy of $1.50 or higher.

  • E.g., A district passing a levy of $0.75 or 50% of the $1.50 threshold would be able to receive 50% of their maximum LEA.
  • E.g., A district passing a levy of $1.50 or 100% of the $1.50 threshold would be able to receive 100% of their maximum LEA.

District LEA funding can range from $1 - $1,440 per student depending on district property wealth.

12. Can all districts generate the same amount of local levy funding?

No. The maximum funding a district can generate through local levies is $2,500 per student, except for Seattle Public Schools which has a local levy cap of $3,000 per student. Due to differing property values and the structure of levy and LEA laws, not all districts are able to raise the maximum of $2,500 per student in levy funding, even if they pass their max levy rate of $2.50. If districts pass their maximum allowed levy and receive their maximum LEA, if eligible, total available enrichment resources range from $1,550 - $3,000 per student across the 295 districts in Washington state for 2020.

13. How much were districts able to raise under the old levy system?

Under the levy system prior to 2019, 205 districts had a levy lid that was capped at an amount equal to 28% of combined state and federal funding amounts. 90 of the 295 school districts in Washington had levy lids ranging from 28.01% to 37.9%.

  • The average per student district levy was $2,329 in 2017 with district levy lids ranging from $1,600 to $8,000 per student. The disparity between district levy lids resulted from a combination of using district funding levels as the basis for levy lids, and the fact that some districts had levy lid percentages that were more than 30% higher than other districts.
14. Did the Supreme Court require Washington to reform the school levy system?

The Court said that the state must meet its paramount duty to fund basic education so districts don’t have to spend levy dollars to provide a basic education for their students. The Court did not require the state to make any changes or reforms to the current levy system, only that the state must pay for the full cost of basic education.

15. What is the ‘levy swap?’

The levy swap increased the amount of state funding directed at education. It increased the state property tax rate by $0.81 per $1,000 of assessed value, while making changes to the local levy lid that had the impact of decreasing the local tax rate for most districts. This also reduced the maximum amount districts can raise locally, beginning in 2019.

All districts saw a net property tax increase for calendar year 2018. This is because the state property tax increased while existing local levies stayed the same. When the new levy rules took effect in January 2019, the net tax impact on districts and net change in combined state and local funding is determined by what levy rate districts passed for 2019 and beyond.

The levy swap increases the amount of state property tax collected for education and decreases the amount of local property tax collected by school districts.

Read More

Education Funding Priorities: Part Two

Education Funding Priorities Part Two

As mentioned in Part One, to help direct our work with our community to create positive change in Washington’s education system, we sent out a survey via email and social media channels in May to learn how Washington community members would like state education funding prioritized. We thank the 737 people, from 71 school districts across the state, who submitted responses.

Our survey first offered respondents an opportunity to rank 16 pre-established funding priorities to make the most difference for students [view results in Part One]. Then respondents had the opportunity to write in other priorities. Over 58% of the respondents added further priorities. Read More

2018 Washington Legislative Session Wrap-Up

Daniel ZavalaBy Daniel Zavala, League of Education Voters Director of Policy and Government Relations

Remember that time last year when I went over everything “You Need to Know about the McCleary School Funding Agreement?” Well, it’s time for a refresh. The 2018 legislative session was all about McCleary 2.0, or what we can call, what to do when the Supreme Court says you’re still not quite there yet.

Many of us were expecting a quiet session where little would be addressed in education due to budget constraints. Two major events occurred: The Supreme Court’s November Order saying the legislature was still out of compliance and a Revenue Forecast that far exceeded most predictions regarding unanticipated future revenue collections. The end result: Another year of legislators in the 11th hour hanging ornaments (i.e. piecemeal policies) on an omnibus policy tree (i.e. Senate Bill 6362) that likely created more questions than answers. My prediction: we will be back next year sweeping up the broken ornaments. And while we may fixate on the 11th hour scrambling, it is important to reflect on the successes we saw this year in expanded eligibility with early learning and college financial aid, increased funds for special education and the State Need Grant, and raised awareness of social emotional and mental health needs.

Read More

State Bond and Levy Elections by the Numbers

By Kelly Munn, League of Education Voters State Field Director, and Jacob Vela, League of Education Voters Senior Policy Analyst

League of Education Voters - Passed Bonds and Levies in Washington 2018 GraphLast month, communities across Washington state voted on local levies to continue funding for enrichment programs and capital projects at district schools. Here are the election results and my analysis.

154 out of the 295 school districts in Washington state ran an Enrichment levy, and 150 passed. 42 levies passed because of simple majority, which is a 50-59.9% yes vote. Those districts that passed in the 50-55% range were mostly in the Puget Sound area.

24 school districts ran a bond, and 11 passed. 11 of the failed bonds would have passed with simple majority for bonds. Bonds currently pass only with a yes vote of 60% or greater.

60 school districts ran capital levies, and 51 passed.

6 school districts ran transportation levies, and 5 passed.

150 school districts passed an Enrichment levy.  It does not yet appear that the confusion around the new McCleary funding is effecting the overall passage rate across the state. 150 out of 154 school districts passed. Superintendent Jim Kowalkowski explains what passage of the levy means for his Davenport School District: “We are excited that many of the programs we offer for students (College in the High School, Satellite Skills Center, Knowledge Bowl, All-day Preschool, Project Lead the Way (STEM) courses, Choir and Drama Programs, etc., will continue to be a part of our educational offerings. We are so grateful to have such a supportive community!” Read More

Activist of the Month: Heidi Bennett

At the League of Education Voters (LEV), we recognize all of the hard work that you do toward improving public education across Washington state. We are pleased to announce our Activist of the Month for February: Heidi Bennett. Read more about her experience as a strong advocate for K-12 and Higher Education.

Heidi Bennett - League of Education Voters Activist of the Month Feb 2017
February Activist of the Month Heidi Bennett

Heidi Bennett is one of LEV’s most involved and dedicated key activists. She first entered the activism arena when her kids were in preschool, at the turn of the century. Her big question: to send her children to public or private school?

Heidi Googled LEV, and connected with Co-founder Lisa Macfarlane. She has been working with LEV ever since – for about 15 years. Heidi recalls Lisa talking about her own kids, saying, “No matter where you send your kids, all kids deserve a great public school education.”

When Heidi moved from New York to Seattle for a better way of life, she never imagined she would be sacrificing her kids’ education. Joining local PTA and then Seattle Council PTA, she began speaking to PTAs in the Seattle area about how Washington schools compare to those in New York and other states, and how they need to advocate for better schools and better outcomes.

In 2006, Heidi gave her first testimony at a Washington state Senate hearing, emphasizing that we deserve to do better for our kids. She was so persuasive that a key Senator suggested that she do the opening prayer for the Senate.

Heidi’s activism took on a life of its own. She became heavily involved in the push for simple majority for school levies and fought hard for the Basic Ed “It’s Basic” campaign with Governor Chris Gregoire. She’s been the Legislative VP of the Seattle Council PTSA, board member and presenter for the Seattle Schools First levy campaign, and several years as the Regional Legislative Chair for Washington State PTA. She has reached hundreds of parents with her “What’s up with WA State Education” presentations and several years ago delivered over 5,000 postcards to Washington state Legislators and the Governor during WSPTA Focus Day. Heidi has also served on several district task forces/committees for highly capable, capacity, and others.

Lately, Heidi continues to engage and educate parents with education panels and PTA talks on Basic Ed. Her most recent panel last week in North Seattle included both high school issues and state funding, and featured Representative Noel Frame, the Government Relations Director of the Association for Washington School Principals, the Legislative Chair of the Seattle Council PTSA, Seattle School District officials, and the principal of Ballard High School. Heidi has educated hundreds of parents on why they need to advocate.

Heidi’s newest passion is higher education. “We’re getting priced out of higher ed. It costs $80-to-$90,000 to send kids to a Washington state college when you include room and board,” she says. “As wages are flat, even the middle class is getting priced out of a bachelor’s degree at a public, state school.” She put higher education on the state PTA platform two years ago and again last fall. This year, she expanded post-secondary advocacy to include community and technical college (CTC) certificates, while continuing to support the College Bound and State Need grants, and making both 2- and 4-year degrees more accessible. Heidi adds, “We need a regional college in the Seattle area, something that offers comprehensive Bachelor’s degrees without having to spend residential costs, similar to Portland State.”

“I want to see an expansion of career counselors in high school, so all students are aware of the opportunities for both a traditional of 4-year college track and other pathways,” she says. “Kids just don’t know there are job-ready career paths by earning CTC certificates or Associate’s degrees. We need to promote these options too to both students and families, and remove the stigma from alternative paths.”

Heidi grew up on Long Island and is a first-generation college graduate. She finished her degree at night, working full-time. She says, “You can’t do that in Seattle – there are not enough opportunities to earn an affordable degree at night at a less-expensive public college. I understand the challenges.”. Professionally, she cut her teeth in marketing on Madison Avenue, earned her VP title, and then moved to Seattle where she was the Director of Client Services for a downtown agency. She started consulting to focus on family life, and is winding down that chapter.

Heidi’s kids are recent graduates of the Seattle School District. Her daughter graduated from Ballard High School and is now at the University of Victoria. Her son graduated in 2016 through Running Start, and is now a rising senior at the University of Washington.

Noting that 70 percent of all jobs in Washington state will soon require a post-secondary credential, Heidi says, “If we want growth in our economy, we need to increase the current rate of only 31 percent of our 9th graders earning some type of post-secondary attainment to over 70 percent. We need to educate parents and students that not all jobs will require a 4-year degree.” To that end, she began advocating for Career Start, which allows students to earn a career certificate while still in high school, similar to Running Start that focuses on AA degrees. “Kids need to know ALL their options,” she says, “And the state needs to make them affordable.”

Statement on the 2015-2017 Budget

After one long legislative session (followed by three special sessions), Governor Inslee signed Washington’s 2015–2017 state budget into law late in the evening on June 30, averting a government shutdown by less than an hour. An unprecedented series of events ultimately delayed sine die until today, but with the true end of our historically long 2015 legislative session at hand, we take a moment to reflect.

What we see in this budget is a more comprehensive investment in education than at any other time in the state’s history. Through their strong investments in public education across the spectrum, early learning through postsecondary, the Legislature has given all Washington’s students more hope for their future.

The 2015 Legislative SessionThe League of Education Voters has long argued that a child’s education should be a continuum with seamless transitions from early learning through higher education. We have worked with partners around the state in pursuit of that vision, including with the Cradle through College Coalition. It is gratifying to see the Legislature following through with strategies and investments that support students at all ages. Read More

Local bond and levy elections raise $1.9B for schools

This February, in nearly 60 local bond and levy elections across the state, Washington voters sent a strong message of support to their local schools by approving 55 school levies, raising more than $817 million dollars for schools.

Sixteen of the 27 bonds passed, raising $1.11 billion for districts across the state. Unlike levies, the passing threshold for bonds is 60 percent. If a simple majority were the threshold, nine other bonds would have passed, raising an additional $694 million for school districts. A bill was introduced this session by Rep. Mia Gregorson to change the passing threshold for bonds to 50 percent, but it did not make it out of the House Education committee.
Of the 55 levies that passed, 44 were for maintenance and operations and raised $804 million total for districts across the state. Eleven of the 55 passed levies are capital levies, which raised more than $12 million for schools.

Eight of the levies passed thanks to simple majority, a 2007 voter-approved constitutional amendment supported by the League of Education Voters. Between 2008 and 2015, nearly $5 billion was raised for schools through local levies.
Read More

Washington voters pass $2.6 billion in taxes for education

You did not see that headline last week, but you should have.

You may have read reports about levies in a particular district or county, but there was precious little attention paid to what happened all across the state. What happened was that voters overwhelmingly supported their local schools and voted for $2.6 billion in taxes to support education.

Let’s say it again: Voters overwhelmingly supported their local schools and voted for $2.6 billion in taxes to support education.

Out of 295 school districts, 157 went to their local communities seeking support to the tune of over $2.7 billion dollars in property taxes. Out of the 157 school districts that put levies on the ballot, 152 of them passed. In a time where we hear that voters will not support revenue, the local election results stand in stark contrast to that narrative.

In most cases, local dollars make up around 25% of the total operating costs of a school district. We are a far cry from local levies being about the “extras” they were originally designed to provide. As the economic crises drags on, the importance of local levies has increased. Local communities have responded to that crisis with overwhelming support for their schools.

Simple Majority, the gift that keeps on giving
It seems odd, but Washington state has a fondness for requiring super majorities when it comes to revenue. It used to be that local schools had to receive more than 60% of the vote to secure a local operating levy. Thanks to Simple Majority (also known as I-4204, passed in 2007) we returned to the most basic of democratic principles, majority rules. That means that 51 levies representing $1.2 billion have passed because of Simple Majority. That is $1.2 billion to support the students in those districts that they otherwise would not have received.

Our support for majority rule extends to the state Legislature, where the law currently requires two-thirds majority to raise revenue. The I-1053 lawsuit, which we filed along with the Washington Education Association and other plaintiffs in October, will have its first hearing in March. We hope that the combination of the McCleary ruling and the eventual ruling on I-1053 will clear the way to fund our schools at the level they need, and local voters seem prepared to support.

edCored: K-12 education funding in Washington state – a broken promise

This blog post was written by Barb Billinghurst for our edCored series on education funding. Barb is one of LEV’s Key Activists and school finance researcher. If you want to be notified when new content is published in this month-long series, please subscribe to the LEV Blog’s RSS feed or once-a-day email digest.

The 1889 framers of Washington state’s constitution made a promise to future generations when they wrote:

“It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders…”

The constitution has been interpreted by State Court judges in 1978 and 1983 to mean that the state must define and fully fund basic education.  Further, the Court said the state cannot require districts to use local levies to fund basic education.

With such powerful words you would think that state dollars would figure prominently in the funding of K-12 education.   And judging by the length of the red bars below, the state in fact has always funded the lion’s share in the last 19 years.

Source:  Based on data from Table Two:  Ten-Year Comparison of General Fund Revenues and Other Financing Sources per FTE Student in Section One of the State’s School District & ESD Financial Reporting Summary for various fiscal years.

But over time the state share has declined.  Starting out at 78 percent in school year 1991-92, it fell to 65 percent in school year 2009-10.

Does the decline in state share signal a retreat from the state’s obligation to fund basic education?

Yes, since 1994, the state’s contribution to total (from local, state, and federal sources) spending per student steadily lost ground against inflation as measured by the Seattle Consumer Price Index.   To match the purchasing power of its contribution in 1994, the state would have to spend at least $200 more per student in school year 2009-10.

Meanwhile, the local share grew from 15 percent to 20 percent since school year 1991-92.   Local levy funds have become essential to our children’s education.

In fact, superintendents, school board members and even OSPI officials have all testified that, despite state law, local levy dollars fund basic education.

Evidently, this is a practice that has gone on for some time.

As the Washington Association of School Administrators revealed in its 2007 Legislative Report:

Superintendents from districts large and small testified repeatedly that districts are facing a financial crisis primarily because they have to increasingly rely on local levy funding to make up the difference between what the state provides for basic education programs and what it costs to carry them out; to meet the needs for additional programs to bring all students up to state mandated standards; to fulfill collective bargaining agreements for non-state employees; and, to pay for unfunded mandates.

There could be no doubt that if the state properly funded basic education, levies would serve their original and important purpose.   That is, they would provide flexibility for local communities to go beyond the basics to enrich their school programs, experiment and innovate, and tailor programs to local needs.

As cuts in state funding slice deeper, it’s no wonder we read stories of schools offering a stripped-down curriculum, devoid of the many amazing cultural, academic, and athletic experiences that we know have the power to light fires.

Just when we should be broadening our children’s horizons, we are instead narrowing them.   A broken promise leaves our children the lesser for it.