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State Supreme Court rules that state Legislature not adequately funding education

OLYMPIA — The state Legislature faces a roughly $2 billion budget shortfall with its session starting on Jan. 9, but before they consider any more cuts to education, they'll need to keep in mind the Washington State Supreme Court's 7-2 decision in McCleary v. Washington, issued on Jan. 5, which ruled that the Legislature has not complied with its constitutional duty to "make ample provision for the basic education of all children in Washington."

While the Court deferred to the Legislature to determine how to meet this constitutional duty, it retained jurisdiction over the case to "facilitate progress in the state's plan to fully implement the reforms by 2018." This represents the culmination of a case that's been working its way through the legal system since a coalition of Washington teachers, school districts, community groups and parents filed it in King County Superior Court in 2007, alleging that the state had not fulfilled its constitutional obligation to fully fund basic education, and had instead relied too heavily on local levy funding assistance.

Lakewood School District Superintendent Dr. Dennis Haddock was part of that lawsuit, and he was gratified that this ruling was issued before start of the Legislature's latest session.

"From a judicial standpoint, this obviously amplifies the importance of meeting our state's constitutional requirement of ample funding for basic education, so hopefully the Legislature should be able to fully fund it through dependable sources."

In its Jan. 5 ruling, the Court recognized the Legislature had enacted "a promising reform package" in its 2009 education reform bill and indicated that this legislation, if funded, "will remedy deficiencies in the K-12 funding system."

Marysville School District Superintendent Dr. Larry Nyland, who was also part of the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools lawsuit, likewise described himself as hopeful, but sounded a more cautious note.

"This is the third time in my career that what the state has done has been found unconstitutional," Nyland chuckled. "I hope they'll fix it, and I hope they'll fix it soon, but I'm not counting the money just yet. The Legislature still has big problems to solve, and they set aside plans for last year that they found they couldn't afford. With the stipulation that the funding has to be increased by 2018, that also opens it up to exactly what this decision means. I hope it means good news for next year — either no cuts, or substantially fewer cuts than the $6 million they're talking about for Marysville just next year. We can't count on this solving all our budget woes."

Nyland acknowledged that the state's finances are limited, but argued that this should result in the funding for other areas, which aren't mandated by the state constitution, being voted on instead.

State Rep. Dan Kristiansen echoed Nyland's priorities, elaborating that he hadn't been able to support the state House bill in 2009, in spite of agreeing with many of its reforms, because it did not outline how to fund its policy changes.

"It was an empty promise," Kristiansen said. "When you look at where the governor wants to go in 2012 with education money, it's basically buying back cuts with sales tax increases. That's backwards to me, because education should be the first thing we're funding, not the last. In a $32 billion state budget, there are so many things that we fund that have absolutely nothing to do with our state constitution. Whether we agree with it or not, as state Legislators, we've all sworn to uphold that constitution, so let's ask voters if they'd be willing to be taxed for other expenditures."

Arlington School District Superintendent Dr. Kristine McDuffy nonetheless expressed pleasure with the Court's ruling and noted that Arlington was one of the first school districts to get involved in the NEWS suit four years ago.

"This ruling clearly articulates the state's paramount duty to fully fund basic education," McDuffy said. "We hope the Legislature's actions reflect the high court's ruling."

"Basic education has pretty clearly been underfunded or inappropriately funded for far too long," Haddock said. "We've all been awaiting this outcome for a long time."

Although the Washington Education Association is still reviewing all the details, WEA President Mary Lindquist declared that "there is no doubt" that the state Supreme Court's decision   to uphold the lower court's ruling in McCleary v. Washington is "a huge victory for Washington children and public education."

"The Supreme Court reaffirmed what the WEA and its partners in the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools have argued for so long — public education in Washington is woefully underfunded," Lindquist said. "This means students and schools can no longer bear the impact of further cuts to public education funding."

Like Haddock, Lindquist appreciated that this decision preceded the start of the state Legislature's 2012 session, because she believes it puts the responsibility for correcting the underfunding "where it belongs," with the Legislature itself.

"The Legislature can no longer punt on full funding for public education," Lindquist said. "It needs to act immediately to remedy this injustice against our children and students."

"The state appealed this case to the Supreme Court to receive clarification and direction to guide the Legislature in meeting its constitutional duty, and this decision is helpful," state Attorney General Rob McKenna said. "We're pleased the Court continues to recognize the primary role of the Legislature in determining how to meet its constitutional duty, and that the Court recognizes the Legislature's progress in fulfilling the state's obligation in passing its 2009 education reforms."

The case was argued before the Washington State Supreme Court on June 28, 2011, by Senior Counsel Bill Clark, after being argued before the King County Superior Court in 2009. In 2010, the trial judge directed the Legislature to conduct a study to establish the cost of providing all Washington children with a basic education, and to establish how it would fully fund such education with stable and dependable state sources. The state Supreme Court rejected these directions by the lower court, finding that the Legislature's implementation of recently approved education reforms satisfied the requirements to establish a plan for determining the cost of a basic education, and would meet the constitutional obligation to fund basic education, if adequately funded.

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