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Originally published Tuesday, August 24, 2010 at 3:53 PM

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Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

Want more school funding? Bring more transparency

Mixed results on school-funding measures signal a paradigm shift. A battered economy has replaced the casual "yes" vote on school levies with a realization that our homes aren't ATMs and our proximity to public costs is closer than we thought.

Seattle Times Editorial Columnist

No surprise that most of the assortment of supplemental school levies on the ballot had a tough time capturing the voter enthusiasm of past school-funding requests.

The state Legislature's abdication of its education-funding responsibility hit a low point this spring when lawmakers authorized some districts to ask voters in the August primary for additional funding beyond regular levies. The result was mixed: a supplemental levy in the Marysville School District failed, a similar request in Everett clings to life and two levies in the Edmonds and Northshore school districts passed narrowly.

Primaries are tough for funding requests anyway as voters go on vacation or lose interest midway down the ballot. More than anything, though, the levy results signal a noteworthy shift. People are pinching pennies. They don't love their children's schools any less, and I suspect most still agree education gets the best bang for public bucks. But the lingering scent of recession is forcing most of us down a new, more subdued path.

The reflexive yes vote on school levies has been replaced with the realization that our homes aren't ATMs and our proximity to public costs is closer than we thought. Voters are rightly viewing spending with heightened scrutiny and a healthy dose of skepticism.

The economy is one reason. A growing lack of trust in government is yet another.

The 3,000 teaching jobs in Washington that Sen. Patty Murray said would be saved if Congress approved a $10 billion spending bill turned out to be not quite so many jobs. Murray and other Democratic lawmakers argued that teachers were being thrown out of work. Local districts reflected a different story: Most approved their budgets last spring and reported few layoffs.

With school starting next week, the money is unlikely to result in new hires. It will go into the general fund to pay for business as usual.

The double-talk around school funding is worrisome. Schools chief Randy Dorn Monday took issue with Gov. Chris Gregoire's threat to impose across-the-board reductions in state government. Dorn pointed out that funding of education is already down $1.9 billion.

Strictly speaking, that is true. But any moral weight Dorn's argument had is obfuscated by education's vast spending and complex, almost hidden, accounting. A voter faced with yet another levy request knows the state lottery sends $100 million a biennium to the school construction fund. He or she knows that Congress sent $100 billion to schools nationwide last year. Add to it the recent congressional infusion of $10 billion and nearly a billion that will come from the Legislature's resumption of two voter-approved education initiatives.

The need for school finance reform, which could shed daylight on education spending, is gaining support. Until then, a lack of clarity and accountability will continue to leach credibility from what ought to be an unassailable case for education's position as the state's No. 1 investment.

Too bad. A Gallup Poll taken earlier this month found one in three parents were concerned about education cutbacks and the effect on their child's school. One would expect that an engaged audience could be persuaded to deepen support of the schools if they could see and trust the funding system. The same poll also found that less than half of Americans were satisfied with the quality of K-12 education.

Unsatisfied parents who refuse to give more may not be a sign of coldheartedness but of frustration funding a system whose inner-workings are hidden to them.

There may be a trickle-down effect to the heightened economic sensitivity and angst. The more people paying attention to school levies and education funding overall, the smarter the conversation about these things. Hey, it could even result in a better crop of candidates for school boards and, moving up the ladder, for state House and Senate. Imagine a crop of elected officials with a sharp grasp of the connection between government costs and our lives. I'd trust a money request coming from them, wouldn't you?

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is

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