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Editorial: Answers still missing to funding of education

Washington lawmakers will approach the state Supreme Court on Monday with the first of their pleadings in the case of the missing school money.

They’re still looking, as are gubernatorial candidates Jay Inslee and Rob McKenna.

In January, the justices found the Legislature out of compliance with the Washington Constitution, which makes “ample” funding of education the state’s “paramount” obligation. They also took the unprecedented step of retaining jurisdiction in the McCleary case, brought by individuals and school districts aggrieved by cuts in state school spending, cuts local taxpayers must backfill with local levies.

The Legislature responded by stopping the cuts, creating efficiencies in school employee health insurance and authorizing a teacher-evaluation plan that should move underperformers on to other careers. All should help improve Washington schools, which are already earning better grades on some standardized tests.

Lawmakers also created the Joint Committee on Article IX Litigation, IX being the constitutional clause with the “ample” language. The committee will be the intermediary between court and Legislature as the justices monitor progress toward adequate school funding. Members have prepared a 35-page report for the Supreme Court that has no magic wands, but does establish a baseline the Legislature and court can work from.

In the current two-year budget cycle, the state will spend about $13.6 billion on K-12 education, about 44 percent of all general fund appropriations. A graph in the report shows an increase in K-12 spending of about 1 percent since 2008. Most state activities took a hit, an egregious 10 percent-plus in the case of Washington’s four-year colleges.

A separate task force has been charged with developing a school funding plan that will satisfy the court and fund all-day kindergarten for all, reduce K-3 class sizes and other improvements.

So far, neither Inslee nor McKenna has proposed much of anything that will generate the estimated $1 billion in new money it will take to bring K-12 spending up to snuff. McKenna would cap other state spending and identify waste, as if Gov. Chris Gregoire had not been doing as much the last few years. Inslee has been even less specific. Both would rely on economic growth and, in the case of Inslee, savings from health care reform.

The committee’s report is more substantial than the comments of either candidate and overall a good summation of how the Legislature has progressed the last few years. But baselines are starting lines; the heavier lifting will come as a new governor and new set of lawmakers re-engage next January with Washington’s financial challenges.

We have questioned the Supreme Court’s decision to become hall monitor in McCleary. It was the justices who declared the school money was missing. There will be ample constitutional mischief if they do not declare it found.

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