On March 11, 1937, the Washington Legislature passes the School Equalization Fund Bill sponsored by State Senator Pearl Wanamaker (1899-1984). The bill provides additional state funding to poorer school districts with low tax bases in an effort to raise their spending levels closer to those of districts with high tax bases, but unlike competing proposals it does not actually “equalize” spending by transferring state funds from rich to poor districts. Wanamaker is a former school teacher and future state Superintendent of Public Instruction who is known for championing public education.
Working for Schools
Pearl Wanamaker was an educator, beginning her career as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse on Camano Island, before she entered politics and eventually rose to serve four influential terms, from 1941 to 1956, as the state Superintendent of Public Instruction. Throughout her political career, which included service in both the state House of Representatives and the state Senate, she used her formidable skills as a legislator and lobbyist in support of education and public schools.
Wanamaker was closely allied with the Washington Education Association (WEA) and in 1937, having given up her state House seat in an unsuccessful run for the United States Congress, was planning to serve as WEA’s paid lobbyist in Olympia, where a school equalization bill was one of the association’s top priorities. However, an unexpected resignation gave Wanamaker a more powerful position from which to push school funding. State Senator L. E. Tewkesbury, who represented the 38th Dstrict that included parts of Island and Snohomish counties, gave up his seat when he moved to Butte, Montana, to work as a hotel manager. The County Commissioners of Island County, where Wanamaker lived, and Snohomish County jointly appointed her to the 38th District Senate seat, and the WEA happily released her from the lobbying contract.
Newly appointed Senator Wanamaker promptly introduced Senate Bill No. 169, "An Act relating to education, creating a state school equalization fund, providing for funding and distributing same …" (Senate Journal, 742). As urged by the WEA, the bill provided extra state funding for tax-poor school districts so that they could increase school spending without having to raise property taxes.
Dueling Approaches to Equalization
Wanamaker's bill was not the only school equalization proposal before the Legislature. In fact, two years earlier in 1935, the Washington State Grange had proposed a more radical equalization measure. That bill would have reduced state funding for richer school districts in order to increase funding for poorer ones in an attempt to make up for the great disparities caused by reliance on property taxes as the major local source of school revenue. Districts with a large tax base could set a low tax rate and still raise a lot of money for their schools, whereas poor districts without much of a tax base ended up imposing higher taxes -- if the local voters approved -- and still raised much less money.
The Grange's skilled and effective lobbyist, Charles W. Hodde (1906-1999), who won the nickname "King of the Lobbyists" when he led the successful effort to get the Legislature to adopt Washington's unique blanket primary system in that same 1935 session, convinced the state Senate to pass the Grange’s 1935 school equalization bill. However, Wanamaker, who was then serving her third term in the House of Representatives, used her position on the Rules Committee to keep the Grange bill from coming to a vote in the House. Although Wanamaker supported more school funding, she disapproved of shifting existing state funding from rich to poor districts.
Hodde tried again in 1937. He had been elected to the House of Representatives in 1936 from his home in Colville, Stevens County. At the same time Wanamaker introduced Senate Bill No. 169, Hodde proposed House Bill No. 156, which, like the Grange’s 1935 proposal, would have shifted state funding from rich districts to those lacking a significant property tax base. Because Hodde’s bill did not increase state funding overall, it did not require raising state taxes. In contrast, Wanamaker’s bill maintained the existing level of funding for all districts (25 cents per pupil per day), while adding an additional $3 million in funding for poorer districts.
Hodde may have been "King of the Lobbyists" but neither that, nor what seemed to him the appealing argument that Wanamaker's bill would cost taxpayers an extra $3 million without actually equalizing school funding, were a match for Wanamaker’s legislative prowess. Hodde's bill did not even make it out of his chamber. On February 25, 1937, the House voted 58 to 37 to "indefinitely postpone" consideration of House Bill No. 156.
Meanwhile, Wanamaker successfully maneuvered her bill through the Senate, at one point using a set of kindergarten blocks to demonstrate in debate how the fund would work. Bill No. 169 passed the Senate by a vote of 38 to 5 and moved to the House, where Hodde, recognizing that it was the closest he could come to true equalization, supported it. However, Hodde proposed a number of amendments to the Senate bill, including one to change the wording from "State School Equalization Fund" to "Current State School Fund," which was defeated. Two of Hodde's amendments were accepted, which led to further legislative wrangling. The Senate declined to accept the amendments and a conference committee was appointed to work out the differences. Ultimately, the conference committee, which included Wanamaker but not Hodde, recommended keeping one amendment -- which increased the percentage of school transportation costs that the state could fund -- and rejecting the other.
Both the House and Senate passed the School Equalization Fund Bill as recommended by the conference committee on March 11, 1937. Governor Clarence D. Martin (1884-1955) signed the bill into law on March 22 (although he vetoed the emergency declaration that would have made the act take effect immediately). Wanamaker's bill may not have lived up to its title as an equalization fund, but it accomplished the goal of increasing state funding for schools that she and the WEA sought. Nearly 30 years later WEA Executive Secretary Joe Chandler told Wanamaker's biographer that "(next to the Barefoot Schoolboy Law passed in early statehood days) [the 1937 equalization bill] is the most important single piece of school finance legislation we have" (Rosenberg-Dishman, 37).