In Our View: No Easy Road for Legislators

Advocacy group turns up the heat on fully funding public education

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Balancing the state budget will be the first priority of the Legislature when it convenes in Olympia in January. But a close second on the priority list will be a mandate from the state Supreme Court to make significant progress on fully funding education. After all, that mandate is enshrined in the state constitution as the "paramount duty" of the state.Public education leaders turned up the heat on Wednesday when an attorney representing Network for Excellence in Washington Schools (NEWS) criticized a legislative report last month that was required by the Supreme Court ruling. According to an Associated Press story, Thomas Ahearne wrote in a court filing that he was disappointed in last month's report and said the Legislature made no progress last year in implementing reforms and showed no commitment to finding ways to pay for better schools.

We salute this aggressive approach by NEWS, which counts among its members 192 school districts, including six in Clark County. Even if improving the economy is seen as the chief challenge for legislators, one reliable path to that goal is improving schools. Our state's founders knew this when they wrote the constitution. State Supreme Court justices knew it when — with a 7-2 ruling known as the McCleary case — they forced the Legislature to do its job and make annual progress reports. And now Ahearne and NEWS have notified lawmakers that life won't be easy for them next year if they don't make progress on fully funding education.

That means more than procedural reforms such as solid teacher and principal evaluations. It also means helping school districts get employees' benefits closer to what's seen in the private sector.

Ahearne's Wednesday report proved the prophecy powers of Peter Callaghan of The News Tribune in Tacoma. He wrote a column last month (it also ran in The Columbian on Sept. 26) describing "little progress toward implementing McCleary and no agreement on how to pay for it." Callaghan quoted Ahearne as saying writers of the legislative report "seem to say, 'Golly gee, it's really gonna be hard to do this, so give us some time. It would be like a burglar telling a judge 'there are still a lot of things I need to buy, so I'm gonna keep stealing, but I promise to slow down.'" Stealing? "They're stealing from kids," Ahearne also said. "I don't think they'll actually comply until the (state) Supreme Court forces them to because kids don't vote."

Flash forward one month. Ahearne this week described the court's crackdown on the Legislature as a "teachable moment … The court's response will teach our upcoming generation of Washington citizens a fundamental lesson about whether our constitution really matters."

Other teachable moments have emerged. Washingtonians have learned that educators and supporters were serious when NEWS took the Legislature to court. And we've learned that balancing the budget won't be the only tough task for legislators. Prioritizing public school funding also will pose an immense challenge, and it doesn't look like NEWS will be putting down its megaphone anytime soon.