The Supreme Court's education decision: Deja vu?

The Supreme Court ruled last week that the state legislature isn't fully funding education. Why the decision isn't the windfall for Washington education that it seems.

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The Supreme Court ruled last week that the state legislature isn't fully funding education. Why the decision isn't the windfall for Washington education that it seems.

Last week the Washington State Supreme court (McCleary v. State) ruled that the state legislature is failing to fully fund education.  This might seem like a real victory for public education in the state, but it's not.

The McCleary v. State decision certainly highlights the state's education problems, but it's more or less a repeat of the Doran Decision — a 1977 lawsuit brought against the state by the Seattle Public Schools for not fully funding K-12 education. And, as history has proved, finding a real solution for the state's education crisis is going to require more than a successful lawsuit. 

The 70s were a tough time for education funding in Washington state. The Boeing bust and its economic repercussions meant state budget cuts,  which forced a heavier reliance on local property taxes to fund K-12 education. Property owners were footing more and more of the bill.  

So in 1975, when Seattle failed to pass two successive property levies at the ballot box, the Seattle School District was hard hit. Filing a lawsuit against the State of Washington, the district argued that the legislature was failing to uphold the state constitution; namely the provision that declares it is the “paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children within its borders.” Paramount duty, the Seattle School District argued, means fully funding education — not forcing local districts to take their chances with “the whim of the [local] electorate” to pass property tax increases.

Thurston County Superior Court's Judge Doran agreed — a decision later sustained by the State Supreme Court — requiring the Washington legislature to define a basic education, and then fully fund it. The ruling didn't put the state on the hook for a “total education” or for specific educational outcomes, like test scores or grades, but the legislature could no longer balance the state’s budget at the expense of K-12 students in public schools by pushing the funding burden onto local districts.

In response, lawmakers passed the Basic Education Act, which evolved throughout the 80s and 90s to seed legislation like the Essential Academic Learning Requirements (EALRs), a regimen of standardized tests to measure success, and a myriad of unsustainable and complex funding formulas intended to balance the interests of large, small, rural, and urban school districts.

But 16 years later, as part of the passage of further reforms in 1993, a report reviewing the relative strengths and weaknesses of Washington’s system concluded there was still “too much reliance on levies, funding formulas that were too complex, inadequate funding for administrative salaries, and inadequate funding for basic operational costs such as books and utilities.” Nothing had changed.

Over time, that delicate balance has eroded even further. Today parents, teachers, and advocates are finding that state allocations are not paying for the actual costs of education. For example, when I worked as a legislative advocate for the Washington State School Director's Association, we found that the state's calculated cost of educating some programs were largely based on certificated teacher time measured in salary, even though districts spend many additional dollars on non-certified staff to support teachers, facilities, and other costs.

Though it may be satisfying to watch the judiciary branch wag its finger at the legislative branch, the process doesn't bear fruit; hectoring from the bench didn’t work last time and there's no reason to believe it will now. Still the Supreme Court does seem to have wised up since the Doran decision. Justice Johnson, writing for the majority in McCleary V. Seattle decision, made clear that:

We therefore reject as a viable remedy the State's invitation for the court simply to defer to the legislature's implementation of [reform] . . . a better way forward is for the judiciary to retain jurisdiction over this case to monitor implementation of the reforms [proposed by the legislature].

However, in her concurrence/dissent with the decision, Chief Justice Barbara Madsen laid out a caveat:

I do not believe this court should attempt to establish goals or benchmarks for the legislature to meet. Rather, as we held in Seattle School District, it is the legislature's duty to define what constitutes basic education and how to adequately fund education at that level. Adopting specific standards or guidelines for defining and funding basic education is a legislative responsibility; it is not a judicial function.

While the Court seems to be holding the legislature more firmly accountable this time around, Madsen’s point is well taken: It is not the role of the judicial branch to determine the content and form of a basic education. A lawsuit is not going to solve this problem. Nor will more budget manipulations in the legislature. Funding public education is not about finding the right formulas for allocating scarce dollars. It is about finding enough money in the first place. 

The real answer to our education problems lies with Washington's voters. Will we keep telling the legislature to fully fund education, while denying the state the revenue to do so? If we are to truly improve our state's education system, we'll have to trust the experts to define education, demand the legislature find a way to pay for it, and open our wallets to make it work. As Judge Doran so astutely put it, the whims of an electorate and the politicians they elect seem unable to get the message: you get what you pay for.


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