Will voters keep approving school levies?

Since at least the 1970s, when the state Supreme Court ruled on the precursor to the McCleary case, the use of maintenance and operations (M&O) levies has been limited to enhancements to basic education. In practice, they were sometimes used for basic education purposes, which was part of the problem identified in the McCleary decision. EHB 2242, the education funding bill enacted this year, renames them “enrichment levies” to better reflect their purpose.

Earlier this month, the Seattle Times reported,

Lawmakers have declared that the state now will fully cover all basic education costs. While many district officials beg to differ, they also worry voters will hear that message and vote down local school levies.

Seattle taxpayers won’t see an “enrichment” levy on their ballots until February 2019, but [Seattle Public Schools assistant superintendent JoLynn] Berge said districts that have a measure next year have reason to worry.

“Words matter. How people interpret something matters,” she said.

“When the public’s told basic education is funded — totally — then passing an enrichment levy versus an M&O levy has a different connotation for taxpayers who just got a much bigger tax bill” from the state, Berge said.

Historically, M&O levies have almost always been approved. In 2016, for example, 287 levies were approved and one was rejected (see page 1 here). In our 2016 report on McCleary we wrote about economist William Fischel’s homevoter hypothesis, which suggests that locally-approved levies are actually more dependable and regular than state funding because homeowners have a financial incentive to ensure that local schools are well-funded. That motive will remain in the new system, so I suspect voters will continue to approve enrichment levies. It will be an interesting test of the hypothesis.

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