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High court demands state education reforms

Mandate for basic education funding unmet, promised changes delayed, ruling says

SEATTLE – The Washington Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the state isn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to amply pay for basic public education, but the justices gave an endorsement to the reform work the Legislature has already started.

The 85-page opinion said that the judiciary would keep an eye on lawmakers to make sure they fully implement education reforms by 2018.

“The court cannot idly stand by as the Legislature makes unfulfilled promises for reform,” Justice Debra Stephens wrote in the majority opinion. She notes that deadlines for reforms keep getting moved back, and if left up to the Legislature the court expects the delays would continue.

Lawmakers, who convene next week for a 60-day session, will also need to focus on what to do about a nearly billion-dollar budget shortfall.

The Supreme Court made a point of saying any future cuts to education must be done for educational reasons, not because there is a fiscal crisis.

Attorney Thomas Ahearne represented the coalition of school districts, parents, teachers and community groups – including Spokane Public Schools and the Spokane Education Association – that sued the state. He said the court made it clear the Legislature has to pay for education first, before any other state program or financial obligation.

“Educators feel affirmed,” Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Nancy Stowell said Thursday. “We’ve been saying for a long time that the state is not fulfilling its obligation to fund basic education.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn said, “The ruling confirms what I have been saying for many years: education funding has not been adequate, and further cuts are out of the question.”

But further cuts are scheduled in the supplemental budget Gov. Chris Gregoire has sent to the Legislature. She disagreed with Dorn that her proposed cut in levy equalization money would run afoul of the high court’s ruling.

“The Legislature has never defined levy equalization as basic education,” she said. Districts decide how to spend that money, however, and “they may be using it for what we consider basic education.”

She acknowledged that another proposal of hers, to cut the school year by four days, does amount to a cut in basic education.

To cover her proposed cuts to levy equalization money and the school year, Gregoire wants the Legislature to pass and send to voters a three-year, half-cent sales tax increase.

Legislative leaders said they weren’t sold on that tax proposal yet. Although Democrats said they thought more tax revenues would be needed, Republicans said they wanted government reforms first.

House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, said the Legislature should stop using key education programs as a “political football” and write the budget by paying for everything that’s in basic education, then dividing what money is left over among other state services and programs.

But Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said the state can’t just focus on basic education and ignore health, public safety and poverty issues. Without those programs, some children “are not going to get a good education.”

The court’s ruling could ramp up debates over the budget, which already has a gap of about $1.5 billion between projected revenues and scheduled expenses.

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