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A Pyrrhic victory for school funding advocates?

Court rulings on how the state needs to fund schools better, such as handed down last week, don't tend to stick very long. And this year's session is no time for finding more money.
Washington Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane.

Washington Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane. None

Unless King County Judge John Erlick holds Gov. Chris Gregoire, Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown in contempt and orders them jailed, don’t expect his ruling last week that the state is inadequately funding education to have much of an impact in Olympia — certainly not this year.

In fact, don’t be surprised if majority Democrats stick a legislative thumb in the judge’s eye. Hours after the ruling, Sen. Brown admitted to me on TVW’s “Inside Olympia” that, “It’s quite likely that education will be cut [further] this year,” due to the state’s current $2.6 billion shortfall.

According to the Washington Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union, the 2009-11 budget already cuts approximately $1.5 billion in K-12 funding. Gregoire’s December all-cuts supplemental budget called for another $400 million in cuts to education, although she’s proposing to “buy back” about half of those cuts with new revenue.

With comments like that floating around Olympia, the plaintiffs in the school-funding lawsuit may not be smiling for long. The reality is, by the time the splash from Erlick’s ruling hit the sandstone Capitol it was a mere ripple. No one was terribly surprised and, except for the obligatory official reaction statements from the governor and key lawmakers, legislative business went on as usual. In other words, time did not stand still even for a moment.

Ironically, that very same day another court ruling was compelling the state to pay up. The recipient? An out-of-state corporation. During my interview with Sen. Brown, she said she had just found out that the state had exhausted its appeal options stemming from a Washington Supreme Court ruling last fall in a corporate tax case. As a result, she said, Washington must now write a $60 million B&O tax refund check to an Illinois company called Dot Foods. To put that in education terms, $60 million would pay for two years of all-day kindergarten.

Even if Attorney General Rob McKenna decides to appeal Judge Erlick’s decision on education funding and the case makes it to the state’s high court and is upheld, public education won’t automatically get a hefty check from the state. That may be how it works when businesses like Dot Foods sue the state, but not when parents bring suit over the education the state is providing their children.

In part this is because judges are reluctant to tell the legislature how to do its job, deferring to the doctrine of the separation of powers. In his ruling, Judge Erlick was explicit that the remedy is very much up to the legislature. He is demanding an accounting of how much it will cost to provide a basic education. But beyond that Erlick says it’s up to lawmakers, not judges, to figure out how to solve the problem.

So what’s likely to happen? It seems the best education advocates can hope for is the ruling fosters a sense of urgency in Olympia — once the economy recovers and revenues start flowing again.

History is a helpful guide. Witness what happened more than 30 years ago. That’s the last time a judge ruled Washington was failing to uphold its constitutional duty to amply fund public schools. Following the Judge Doran (pronounced Dorn) ruling in 1977, the Washington legislature did feel compelled to act. That same year it passed legislation defining what constitutes a basic education and put into place new funding formulas for school districts. Long story short, those formulas were politically engineered so that some districts made out a lot better than others (a legacy that helped spawn this most recent school-funding lawsuit).

According to a timeline by the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools, the following year, in 1978, the Supreme Court affirmed the Doran decision. In response, the legislature upped its contribution to local school districts to 84 percent of the total cost of educating a student. Lo these many years later, the chief complaint is still that the state is shortchanging districts and forcing them to use local levy dollars to pay for basic expenses like school bus transportation. The court fix didn't stay fixed.

Another percentage barometer that also merits attention these days is the percentage of the overall state budget that goes to public education. According to the WEA, over the past 25 years it’s dropped from 50 percent to 40 percent as healthcare costs gobble up more and more tax dollars. There are many education leaders in the legislature, both Democrats and Republicans, who think one obvious solution is to reverse that trend and get education spending over that 50 percent mark again. In fact Republicans have a “fund education first” mantra that Democrats dismiss as impractical.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Feb 8, 8:35 a.m. Inappropriate

What deficit? Total expenditures have yet to decline. State 07-09 expenditures totaled 69 plus billion. Projected 09-11 expenditures were 71 plus billion. Subtract the anticipated "deficit", and State 09-11 expenditures will be budgeted at 69 plus billion. The trumpeting of "deficits" is a political fabrication in service of increasing taxes. There is no DEFICIT; there is a surplus of false-expectations.

Posted Mon, Feb 8, 7:53 p.m. Inappropriate

Why do we equate availability of money with a quality education. There is, in fact, a well supported contrary public policy view: the more money you spend on education, the less well educated you become. One room schools, with very simple and inexpensive resources, educated millions in prior generations, who went on to become leaders in every sector of our world. Why not reconsider reading, writing and arithmetic taught to the tune of a hickory stick?

rerickson

Posted Tue, Feb 9, 9:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Austin, a "Pyrrhic victory" comes at a price which is greater than the victory was worth. Try looking it up in the dictionary! I don't see how the legal finding of the judge leaves education any worse off than it was before.

DannyK

Posted Wed, Feb 10, 8:15 a.m. Inappropriate

DannyK,

First off, why the need to be so rude? A little civility and politeness never hurt anyone. Second, it just so happens I did look it up. And third it refers to the notion that despite the win in court, the legislature will likely cut education funding again this year. Finally, I would note that the headline poses a question.

Thanks for reading.

Austin

ajenkins

Posted Wed, Feb 10, 1 p.m. Inappropriate

Great article that follows a very interesting interview with Senator Brown.

Senator Brown suggested that a new taxing source was necessary to fund basic education but she failed to make a convincing case for that proposal.

The same constitution used by the judge to suggest that the state was failing in its duty to properly fund basic education implies that a new funding source is probably unnecessary for meeting that purpose.

Since the education of the state's children is its paramount duty, funding it is the state's first responsibility. It - and other constitutionally protected services and programs - should be funded before all the other great but arguably less necessary state programs and services. Then if new taxes are needed to fund the whole shebang, fine.

Asking the people of the state to pay more in taxes to support education gives the legislature a chance to protect desirable but constitutionally unnecessary programs and services. It's a legitimate - some think the only - way to convince folks to pay for an array of great services. It's also a form of bait and switch.

crankyoldlady

Posted Tue, Feb 16, 7:27 a.m. Inappropriate

For me, this is a prime example of what is most frustrating about our state government. Every one of the politicians in Olympia love to spout off about their deep commitment to K-12 education and how they want to provide our children with the best schooling in the world, and then they vote to under-fund it. They all manage to point the finger at someone else. Somebody down there in Olympia is voting against full funding of education and I want to know who it is.

coolpapa

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