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Judge says state's failure to fund basic education is 'unconstitutional'

These charts, developed by the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools, illustrate the purported gap between state basic education funding and actual school district costs. Plaintiffs in a lawsuit say state basic education funding doesn
These charts, developed by the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools, illustrate the purported gap between state basic education funding and actual school district costs. Plaintiffs in a lawsuit say state basic education funding doesn't cover the cost of classroom teachers, classroom teaching materials and school facilities.
— image credit: Network for Excellence in Washington Schools

When he ran for state Senate in 2008, Kevin Ranker said full funding for basic education — a requirement of the state Constitution — would be a priority if elected.

A ruling by a King County Superior Court judge Feb. 4 moved that priority — for Ranker and his colleagues in the Senate and House — to the top of the list.

Judge John Erlick ruled that the state Legislature is not fulfilling its constitutional duty to fully fund basic education.

In his 78-page ruling in McCleary et al v. State of Washington, Erlick ruled that the word "paramount" in Article IX, Section 1 of the Constitution means “preeminent, supreme and more important than all others” and that funding K-12 education is “the State’s first and highest priority before any other State programs or operations.”

Erlick ruled that the state "has not designed or implemented a State system that (1) determines the actual cost of amply providing all Washington children with the education mandated by this court’s interpretation of Article IX, §1, and (2) fully funds that actual cost with stable and dependable State sources."

He ordered the Legislature to “proceed with real and measurable progress” in determining the costs of providing students with the “basic knowledge and skills needed to compete in today’s economy and meaningfully participate in this State’s democracy,” and to establish a stable, dependable funding source to pay those costs.

"Society will ultimately pay for these students," Erlick wrote. "The State will pay for their education now or society will pay for them later through unemployment, welfare, or incarceration."

The lawsuit was brought by the McCleary family of Jefferson County, the Venema family of Snohomish County and the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools, a coalition of more than 75 school districts, statewide civic organizations and community groups, education associations, parents and teachers.

Erlick's decision is similar to a decision by the state Supreme Court in 1978; in Seattle School District v. State of Washington, the state's high court ruled that a school district's reliance on special excess levy funding violated the state’s “paramount duty to . . . make ample provision for the education of all children.”

According to charts provided by Network for Excellence in Washington Schools, San Juan Island School District received about $4.8 million in state basic education funding in 2007-08, and about $400,000 in other state funds for class-size reductions, construction, cost-of-living adjustments and teacher training.

State basic-education funding covers the cost of school facilities and half the cost of classroom teachers and classroom teaching materials. The remaining funds for teachers and teaching materials must come from other school district funding sources.

All told, the district budget in 2007-08 was about $11 million. Other expenses include capital projects; food service; extracurricular activities; utilities, insurance, legal compliance; school administration; librarians, counselors, safety personnel, health; and student transportation.

The district's other funding sources: federal, for special programs like special education; a local property tax levy for maintenance and operations; and a local property tax levy for capital facilities and technology.

Without those funding sources, "we would be incredibly hard-pressed to find out how to meet our (education) requirements — our barebones requirements," San Juan Island School Board Chairman David McCauley said. "That would be a hard, hard challenge. That's why the local levy is so important to us."

In a six-week trial that ended in October, the plaintiffs contended that the state’s current basic education funding required local school districts to increasingly rely on levies and fund-raising. Two years ago, San Juan Island residents raised $600,000 to erase a school district budget deficit and maintain programs at current level; local officials said the deficit was caused by enrollment declines and a shortfall in state funding for state-voter-mandated cost-of-living increases for teachers.

San Juan Island voters approved a measure in November to fund school sports through Island Rec. The school district was forced to cut $1 million from its budget for 2009-10, and McCauley predicts similar cuts for 2010-11.

Erlick's decision comes as activity steps up in Olympia to define and improve funding for basic education.

Last year, the Legislature approved House Bill 2261, which commits to fully funding basic education by 2016. (Erlick ruled Feb. 4 that the state “cannot avoid the question of whether it is currently complying with its legal duty under Article IX, Section 1 by stating its intent to correct a legal violation sometime in the future.”)

The Senate is now considering SB6760, co-sponsored by Ranker, which would establish a new basic education instructional allocation distribution formula, to take effect Sept. 1, 2011. SB6760 is based on the recommendations of a legislative task force.

Ranker, a Democrat representing the San Juan Islands in the Senate, said Erlick's ruling "very clearly underscores what we have been saying for a while — that what we need to do is step up, and we need to expedite how we're going to do this."

Ranker said full funding for basic education won't be as easy as two years ago, when he and other candidates proposed simply funding education first and budgeting other state expenses with the rest.

"I still believe funding education has to be the top priority, but the reality is it was a lot easier to think that way two years ago, before we cut 35 percent of our budget. Now we're looking at a $13 billion deficit over a 20-month period. It's not going to happen when we've cut $9 billion last year and $2.6 billion this year."

Ranker said fully funding basic education would cost an additional $5 billion to $7 billion — a challenge, he said. "Cutting another $5 to 7 billion from other programs is not realistic," he said. "It's horrible. There's no winner."

Ranker said the Legislature needs to "continue a very serious dialogue about revenues." In a 2010 forecast published in The Journal and SanJuanJournal.com, Ranker wrote, "Washington last adjusted the state sales tax rate in 1983. Over a quarter of a century has gone by since we’ve taken the time to ask ourselves whether or not we should look at our primary source of state revenue. However, when discussing revenue I think it is necessary to not only discuss new revenue streams, but also evaluate existing taxes — try to reform our taxes in a way that helps small business and our lower- and moderate-income families."

He said other programs — mental health, senior and health care, public safety, and environmental — are at stake as well.

Other local reaction to the decision
“We are one of the school districts who supported the lawsuit, so we've been watching,” Orcas School Superintendent Barbara Kline said. “It's pretty amazing. There will be an appeal next, and you never know how that will go. The reality of it is: what money is available?”

Kline and the school board will be meeting with representatives in Olympia soon to talk about legislative and budget issues.

“Even if we don't get money right away, it makes public the fact that the state has not been adequately funding the schools,” Kline said.

Orcas School Board member Tony Ghazel, who has been a legislative representative for the school district, says the decision is great news for Washington and for “small, highly achieving schools in our district.”

“The legislators have been dragging their feet for a long time, and hopefully this ruling will light the fire under them to act promptly and swiftly to fully fund education once and for all,” he said.

“There is no time for delays, appeals, dragging their feet or spinning the judge's decision. Frankly, our students can't wait any longer.”

McCleary v State

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