May 13, 2014 in Opinion

Editorial: Lawmakers aren’t making a good case on school funding shortfall

 

If the April 29 legislative report to the Washington Supreme Court is the strongest case lawmakers can make for their efforts so far to fully fund education, they have many more days in court ahead.

That’s unfortunate, because with a more assertive case they might have convinced their coequals in divided government they do indeed feel a “constitutional urgency,” in the words of the attorney general’s office, to provide for schools what Washington’s Constitution demands: “ample” funding.

In its January 2012 ruling in the McCleary case, the court ordered lawmakers to reach that objective. Because past legislatures had ignored a similar finding by an earlier court, the justices took the highly unusual step of retaining jurisdiction in McCleary until 2018, in effect holding a ruler over the knuckles of reluctant legislators.

We have repeatedly suggested the court is overreaching. But a fragile bipartisan Senate majority caucus and a governor focused on transportation and the environment have allowed the justices to become the champions for schools. Courts seldom have such a popular political height all to themselves.

The diffident legislative report, if anything, invites a still more assertive judicial hand.

The justices ordered the update in January because they were dissatisfied with the rate of progress toward full education funding despite the commitment of almost $1 billion more for this budget biennium. The report corrected what legislators say is a misunderstanding of the equation used to calculate transportation funding, and portraying new materials, supplies and operating money as a foundation for the critical 2015-17 budget cycle.

And there has been progress; on funding full-day kindergarten, raising graduation requirements and adding high school guidance counselors to help students identify their education and career options.

But the authors of the report also conceded the obvious: Republicans and Democrats, senators and representatives, cannot agree on what a final plan for implementing McCleary will look like. “The stumbling block remains the development and passage of a full financing package of budget, tax and revenue reforms …”

Such practical problems are no matter to the lucky justices.

The lawmakers acknowledge the court’s “legitimate mandate” to hold them to account for education funding, but “respectfully suggests that the Court give deep consideration to its response to the actions taken in 2014, that such response not be counterproductive, and that 2015 is the next and most critical year” for a grand bargain on to comply with McCleary.

Unfortunately, they weakened their case by not including test scores in teacher evaluations. And they lost their strongest ally on the court, recently retired Justice James Johnson.

Unless Washington’s revenue outlook improves significantly by the end of the year, legislators will be in a corner come January. The justices will be in the opposing corner.

Could become a constitutional teachable moment.


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