Last week’s ruling by the Washington Supreme Court that the state is failing to properly fund basic education surprised no one with a high school diploma or better.
With the words “ample” and “paramount,” the state constitution sets a very high bar for legislators charged with finding enough money for K-12 schooling. In good times and bad, the state has usually fallen short. Despite a 1975 case that faulted the state for over-reliance on local property tax levies, the Legislature has gradually allowed the share of education dollars raised using voter-approved tax levies to increase from 9 percent to 28 percent, and higher still in some counties.
Meanwhile, the definition of “basic education” has broadened to include elements like transportation. And the allocation of money is gradually shifting to a focus on student achievement, not just attendance – very much still a work in progress with the adoption, then abandonment, of the WASL test.
The demand for more skills in an increasingly complex and competitive economy just adds to the pressure on schools to perform miracles with too many students who are ill-prepared, ill-fed and ill-housed, if housed at all.
All nine of the justices concluded the duty of the Supreme Court is to uphold the constitution and agreed the state is not living up to its constitutional responsibilities. But the two dissenters in the 7-2 decision, Chief Justice Barbara A. Madsen and Justice James M. Johnson, while agreeing with the majority on the Legislature’s dereliction of duty, nevertheless said their peers were exposing the court to considerable condemnation by retaining jurisdiction in the case. That is, the majority intends to take on the role of overseer as lawmakers work toward full implementation of a financial reform plan by 2018.
Not only is the majority edging too close to usurping legislative authority, say Madsen and Johnson, it also failed to set benchmarks that could guide lawmakers as they work toward compliance with the court’s finding, as earlier courts did when they identified the standards they would use to determine whether schools had truly been desegregated.
Unmentioned was the risk that the court, despite its good intentions, will look impotent as lawmakers with a $1 billion-plus budget gap to close continue to scrimp on schools. Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget includes substantial reduction in levy equalization money but also a half-cent, three-year sales tax hike to offset some of her proposed program cuts.
One last concern: voter confusion about how far-reaching the court’s decision might be with levy renewals coming up for several local school districts next month. Schools need that money more than ever.
Ample funding will remain an aspiration, not a reality, until Washington’s economy strengthens and revenues increase. The court did well to keep everybody’s eye on the goal. It should leave the rest of the work to the Legislature.