In our view: Follow the Mandate

Legislature is not fully funding education; reforms needed to meet constitutional duty

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Thursday’s ruling by the state Supreme Court affirmed what many Washingtonians have known for years: The state is not meeting its constitutional responsibility — indeed, its “paramount duty” — to fully fund basic public education. It’s time for the Legislature to listen to the court and find ways to follow the job description.

Members of the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools (NEWS), including Vancouver Public Schools, are celebrating the high court’s 7-2 decision. NEWS is the coalition of school districts, parents, teachers and other groups that sued the state. But the Legislature remains far short of meeting that constitutional mandate. This new decision, though dispensed from the highest court in the state, does little more than nudge the glacial pace of improving public schools.

Where does the money come from? Legislators remind us that they continually wrestle with revenue shortfalls. But it is the Legislature, and not the state Supreme Court, where the authority resides for meeting the mandate. It’s the lawmakers’ job to find ways to make it happen. The court said as much Thursday in its majority opinion: “We have done our job; now we must defer to the Legislature for implementation.” And the justices reminded the legislators: “The court cannot idly stand by as the Legislature makes unfulfilled promises for reform.” They said it will monitor the lawmakers to make sure they fully implement education reforms by 2018.

The dual message from the judiciary to the legislative branch essentially is this: “You’re not doing your job, and we’ll be watching for six years to see if you find ways to correct that dereliction of duty.”

That’s not exactly a thunderous command, is it?

Paying for meeting the mandate must start with reform, and reform comes in many packages. Already the state has streamlined proficiency test procedures. School districts are moving toward merit-based pay for teachers. But other significant reforms exist only as dreams. For example, local school districts are still forced into funding predicaments as local taxpayers are forced to pay for the state’s “paramount duty.” Supposedly to ease that demand, the state has a levy equalization system designed to help property-poor school districts keep pace with wealthy districts. Even as rickety and unreliable as that system appears, it’s actually even worse. Gov. Chris Gregoire recently proposed cuts in levy equalization that could mean the loss of several millions of dollars in the affected districts, seven of which are in Clark County.

The responsibility is not solely the Legislature’s. School districts could do a better job of maximizing available revenue by taking tougher stances in negotiations with local teacher unions. Together, they should produce contracts with public-sector sacrifices more closely resembling what is seen in the private sector.

Other changes are more easily achieved. Fewer unfunded mandates from the state and federal government would help school districts. More privatization of jobs in education — especially in transportation and food services — could yield huge efficiencies.

What’s the full definition of “basic public education”? It’s embodied in House Bill 2261 of 2009; many of the bill’s guidelines remain ignored because of budget constraints. And if the Legislature continues to drag its feet, Thursday’s court victory will ring hollow for NEWS. To inspire lawmakers, here’s a comment we’ve used in previous editorials, from King County Superior Court Judge John Erlick, who issued a similar ruling in 2010: “Society will ultimately pay for these students. The state will pay for their education now, or society will pay for them later through unemployment, welfare or incarceration.”

Moving swiftly toward meeting that constitutional mandate is the right thing to do.