Legislative Update

by Marie Sullivan, WSSDA Director of Governmental Relations

Tuesday, JUNE 28, 2011

Supreme Court hears landmark education funding case

The Washington State Supreme Court heard oral arguments today (Tuesday) on a 2010 trial court decision that the state is failing to meet its constitutional duty to amply fund basic education.

McCleary v. the State of Washington—informally known as the Erlick decision after the King County Superior Court judge who presided over the trial—pits what the state claims is an adequate system for funding basic education in the state against what education advocates claim is a system inadequate to provide a realistic or effective opportunity to learn the basic knowledge and skills required of today’s students.

The case was on appeal by the state, which was argued by Bill Clark of the Attorney General’s office.

Clark said the state has an obligation to meet the funding needs for basic education, but has no obligation to fund the full operating costs of school districts or protect districts from a decline in funding.

Responding to a question about salary cuts for teachers imposed this legislative session, Clark suggested that there would have to be evidence that this paring back would have an adverse effect on students.  Clark argued that “enhancements” to basic education are now properly funded at the local level through the use of property tax levies.  

Under questioning by Justices Debra Stephens and Charles Wiggins, Clark said the reductions from the 2011 legislative session weren’t cuts to basic education, and that student test scores were evidence that the state was funding education sufficiently.

The case was originally filed in 2007 by Network for Excellence in Washington Schools (NEWS), a coalition of parents, school districts, unions, and community-based organizations formed to advocate for changes to the state’s system for funding education.  Carter and Kelsey McCleary are students in the Chimacum school district—the lawsuit was brought by their parents on their behalf.

Arguing for McCleary and on behalf of the NEWS coalition, attorney Thomas Ahearne said three decades had passed since the state Supreme Court had last called the Legislature to task, and education was still under-funded. Ahearne said the state knew how much was required to fund basic education but hadn’t made it a priority. The Erlick decision, he said, requires the Legislature to step up and fund the students of today.

He argued it was the high court’s duty to require the other branches of government to comply with the constitution when they aren’t—as is the case in funding basic education.

Both attorneys were questioned about ESHB 2261 and the sufficiency of the funding formulas adopted by the Legislature in 2009 and 2010.

Ahearne said 2261 was a “sham,” and just replaced existing titles, such as NERCs, with a new title—MSOC— but didn’t get at the full funding. He also said the Legislature had backed away from its commitment to full funding this session, and that the formulas weren’t based on actual costs of real school operations.

“We can’t just keep kicking the can down the road,” said Ahearne, arguing that the remedy he was seeking was full funding of basic education in a timely manner. Ahearne urged the court to put the “most important words they will ever put to paper” on the subject of education by requiring the Legislature to cover the actual costs of basic education in the state.

Clark agreed with Erlick that funding should be based on actual costs but argued that state funding had increased this biennium.

When questioned about the actual size of the K-12 budget, he acknowledged that as a percentage of the overall state general fund, basic education had decreased to about 44 percent, but that the current system of funding basic education was still constitutionally adequate.

Clark argued that 2261 was “much more than just a shell game” but was instead the most substantial piece of education reform legislation passed in the last 30 years. “Let the Legislature do its job,” said Clark, arguing that it wasn’t the court’s role to determine how much funding should be spent.

WSSDA spoke with both attorneys after oral arguments concluded about when a decision might be expected. Both agreed it would likely be before the end of the year, but not a lot before.

To watch a replay of the arguments online, tune into TVW

WSSDA Legislative Reports

WSSDA legislative reports are prepared by WSSDA's Governmental Relations staff team: Marie Sullivan (360.252.3010) and Sheila Chard (360.252.3011). We welcome your questions and comments. We also encourage school directors to keep in touch with their legislators on a regular basis. If you need contact information, visit the Legislature's District Lookup Tool. WSSDA also provides a number of links to key House and Senate committees.

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