January 14, 2014 in Opinion

Editorial: Washington Legislature is better judge of education funding decisions

 

When the Washington Supreme Court issued its historic January 2012 ruling in the McCleary school funding case, we were troubled by the justices’ decision to retain jurisdiction over the case until the court concluded the state was fulfilling its constitutional obligation to “amply” fund education.

As dissenters Chief Justice Barbara A. Madsen and Justice James M. Johnson warned then, the court was usurping powers delegated to the legislative branch of government. They also faulted the seven justices in the majority for not setting benchmarks lawmakers and the governor could reference as they progressed toward funding levels the court might find acceptable as they approached a 2018 deadline for compliance with McCleary.

That dissent was resoundingly affirmed last week, when the court rendered an opinion on the Legislature’s progress report. Unfortunately, it was signed by only one justice: Johnson.

Madsen was instead the author of the 8-1 majority decision that reprimanded the Legislature for falling short of its own funding goals. The court wants to see a plan from lawmakers that will get state schools up to the 2018 mark – whatever that might be – by April 30.

Some of the lawmakers who reconvened in Olympia yesterday are starting to get a bit testy.

The court got a pass on its grab for the school bell two years ago because the justices spoke a truth too many were ignoring: Washington underfunded its schools. The state’s 295 school districts were being forced to go to voters for supplemental tax levies. The system was failing, with a capital “F.”

And the Legislature responded. Despite an anemic economic rebound, lawmakers last year funded statewide all-day kindergarten and smaller class sizes for lower grades, and provided more money for transportation and supplies. The package for the 2013-15 biennium adds about $1 billion to K-12 spending.

Everyone understood that much more work would be needed, but not until 2015. Revenues have increased, but not enough for this Legislature to significantly augment the spending already authorized.

That may not be good enough for the court, and a few legislators are starting to wonder if the justices might be vacating the Temple of Justice for the Capitol.

So is Johnson, who reminds the court majority that Article IX, Section 2 of the state constitution says, “ the legislature shall provide for a general and uniform system of public schools (his italics).”

Lawmakers, he says, are better able to gather information on the shifting priorities and performance of schools, citing the changing test results in student McCleary’s own school to illustrate how dynamic educational outcomes can be.

Many gave the court a pass on its original McCleary decision, and its retention of a watchdog role. The ruling forced legislators to confront their constitutional responsibilities, and that was a good thing. But as the majority presses forward, and demands more, costs will increase. The justices will be in a very bad place, and the court itself damaged, if the Legislature can shift blame to them for whatever tax increases may be necessary to satisfy their definition of “ample.”

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