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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington lawmakers to court: Promise kept on education

OLYMPIA – Sen. David Frockt (left) and Rep. Paul Harris, co-chairman of a committee that reports to the Washington Supreme Court on improvements to education, listen to a staff report on the draft report Thursday. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – The Legislature has kept its promise to reform the state’s public school system, pouring in an extra $13 billion over a decade, raising teacher pay and revising the property tax system, a special committee will tell the Washington Supreme Court.

Sometime this fall, the court is expected to say whether it agrees.

An attorney representing the families who originally sued the state over its failure to meet its constitution obligation on education will argue it does not meet the goals.

The Joint Select Committee on Article IX Litigation – more commonly called the McCleary committee after the landmark court case that gave birth to it and some six years of legislative debate – voted 7-1 Thursday to send its annual report on what lawmakers did to satisfy that 2009 decision.

The 2017 report is arguably the most important, because this was the year the Legislature had to make the most extensive and expensive changes as they faced a deadline for those improvements.

“This is not a policy document,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, a member of the committee. “This is a report to the court on what we accomplished this session.”

Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, the committee’s co-chairman and the lone no vote, said the report is accurate and reflects what lawmakers did. But it leaves out information about ongoing money in the capital budget for school construction and the amount of extra money each of the state’s 295 school districts will receive.

The 42-page report spells out what lawmakers passed on June 30, with a partial government shutdown hanging over their heads. That legislation includes more money for special education, the learning assistance program, bilingual instruction, highly capable students, and career and technical education. It also increases state spending on transportation to schools, and adds higher levels of guidance counselors and parent coordinators to what’s known as the prototypical school model.

Overall, the state will spend an extra $3.7 billion in the next two years over what it spent in the last two, and another $4.6 billion in the two years after that.

In the 2019-21 budget cycle, the state is scheduled to spend nearly $26.6 billion on public schools, compared to the amount it is currently spending. That’s almost double the $13.6 billion spent in the 2009-11 budget cycle.

By passing that legislation, “the 2017 Legislature achieved the promise of its earlier enacted reforms,” the report says in its conclusion. “It is the intent of the Legislature that these comprehensive revisions to K-12 policy and funding will improve outcomes for all children.”

Thomas Ahearne, attorney for the McCleary family and others who sued the state in 2007, said he wasn’t surprised the report makes such a claim.

“It’s what politicians have to say,” Ahearne said in an interview after the committee meeting. But the projected spending “doesn’t come close” to what the court has previously said is required, he added.

“It’s better than other states,” he said, but that’s not the point, because the Washington constitution requires more support of public schools. “Our state has the strongest education clause in the country.”

The attorney general’s office will argue the state has met its obligation in a filing next week. Ahearne will submit a brief Aug. 30 arguing that the state still hasn’t done what the court ordered it to do, and is falling short. The court is expected to hear arguments sometime in the fall.