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Editorial: Lawmakers earned incomplete on school funding

Much is made of the state Supreme Court’s recent ruling to retain jurisdiction in the McCleary case, but it shouldn’t be a surprise. The Legislature hasn’t finished its work in funding basic education, as it is constitutionally bound to do, so it deserved a grade of incomplete.

The deadline for achieving compliance was the end of the 2017 legislative session, to be implemented by September 2018. The Legislature chose to cram final pieces of the puzzle – funding teacher salaries and local levy reform – into the 2017 session, which went into triple overtime.

The court’s ruling was a fait accompli after lawmakers punted on key decisions in previous sessions.

The Legislature delayed the final step of funding teacher pay by phasing it in. It asked the court to accept that the state was on the right path. So was Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” but it was still an ordeal to reach the Emerald City. Lawmakers always had the brains, but heart and courage were harder to come by.

That could still be the case, so the court decided to retain jurisdiction.

The court rejected the state’s argument that the final step couldn’t be taken all of a sudden, correctly noting that the state was solely responsible for this urgency. In a detailed and reasonable ruling, the court said, in essence, the state should’ve started sooner.

The ruling points out that the state has only allocated about half of the $2.2 billion earmarked for teacher salaries. Another $1.1 billion or so will be needed.

The court, however, ruled mostly in the state’s favor, as it rejected several arguments from the plaintiffs that the methods employed by the state wouldn’t do the job. The ruling demonstrates that the court is granting lawmakers deference on how it will achieve ample funding for basic education.

The court noted that the state was in compliance on a number of items, including funding for transportation, special education and materials, supplies and operating costs (MSOC). The court also acknowledged the billions of dollars already allocated.

Critics who have long complained that the court was taking over the schools or dictating how they must be funded should read the ruling. The state established the methods through multiple bills. The court set a reasonable deadline and determined compliance based on those bills.

Now the Legislature must come up with the rest of the money needed, and, as experience tells us, it’s not a sure thing that it will.

We’ve never been comfortable with the court’s oversight of schools, because of the danger of usurping the Legislature’s powers. But it’s undeniable that lawmakers have needed continual prodding. Now they need to follow through during the 2018 session.

They won’t like doing that, especially in an election year. But it’s entirely their fault that they remain on the Yellow Brick Road.


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