Make no mistake, the Legislature is still in charge of improving K-12 education in Washington. School districts might have territorial distinctions, but legislators set overall policy and determine funding. That said, legislators are feeling more pressure these days, directly from the Washington Supreme Court and indirectly from a grass-roots coalition of school districts, parents, teachers and community groups.The latest squeeze on lawmakers came Wednesday when the state Supreme Court ruled that the coalition will be allowed to review and criticize the Legislature's reports on its progress toward fully paying for basic education. This ruling follows one in January when the court said the Legislature is not following the constitutional mandate to prioritize basic education as its "paramount duty." That January ruling delighted the coalition -- the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools -- and NEWS hailed Wednesday's edict as "a monumental and historic victory for the students and citizens of Washington."
We'll have to see about that. There's no indication the Legislature will escape its budget woes anytime soon, and amply funding education -- at least in the eyes of the Supreme Court and NEWS -- remains many years away. We hope progress will be more expeditious, but there's no way of knowing just yet.
Still, the pressure is on. Not only must the Legislature show progress in improving education, but it must provide a report within 60 days, and another within 60 days after the governor signs each year's state budget. And then, NEWS will get to review the report, and the coalition's attorney will have 30 days to file a written response. Then the court will study both reports and decide if the Legislature should be pressured to provide more information.
We don't see many "shall" and "must" edicts sent to the Legislature by these rulings, and there remains the possibility that nothing will be accomplished toward the overall goal. But if that happens, you can expect NEWS to kick up its heels just as it did back in 2010 when the coalition won a lawsuit against the state, and as it did in January with the bigger court victory. Ultimately, stubbornness by legislators could be made an issue in their respective re-election campaigns and possibly reflected at the ballot box.
NEWS attorney Thomas Ahearne was ecstatic after Wednesday's ruling. "This is as good as I could possibly expect," he said.
But a more skeptical perspective reveals that the court only dispatched new directives -- and essentially nonbinding ones -- to the Legislature. A more balanced response came from Janelle Guthrie, spokeswoman for Attorney General Rob McKenna: "We think (the latest ruling) strikes a good balance between the court's desire to monitor progress and the Legislature's decision-making authority.
This issue has considerable traction in Clark County. NEWS lists among its 394 members six school districts in Clark County: Evergreen, Vancouver, Battle Ground, Washougal, La Center and Hockinson. Strengthening the NEWS advocacy is the fact that its members include teachers unions and community groups.
For taxpayers, this ongoing story has become an interesting tug-of-war. For students in civics classes, it's a fascinating case study in the balance of powers between the legislative and judicial branches. For teachers and students, it's a source of hope that some day the state will perform its "paramount duty."
As any legislator would point out, though, finding the money to perform that duty is a whole 'nother story.