When it comes to reforming public education, some Washington legislators are starting to sound like a 16-year-old negotiating a curfew: What, precisely, do you mean by "curfew"? Does "by midnight" mean before, during or after 12 a.m.? And by "home," could that mean sitting in a car parked on property owned by you and Dad?
Most Washingtonians understand the state Supreme Court's mandate to fully fund basic education by 2018, but a few state politicians aren't sure what that means. As The Associated Press reports: "Does it mean Jan. 1, 2018? Does it mean fiscal year 2018, which begins July 2017? Or does it mean the 2018-2019 school year, which begins in September 2018?"
In a way, we understand the lawmakers' angst expressed at a July 31 meeting. It wasn't easy coming up with a billion dollars this year to keep the Legislature on schedule to meet that court edict. And we doubt whether the task will get much easier, even if state revenues rise as expected due to the economic recovery.
But in another way, this is all starting to sound like hair-splitting and stalling tactics, which would not be the best strategy for improving schools in Washington.
"There's some room for interpretation," said Dave Stolier, the senior assistant attorney general who represents the Legislature to the Supreme Court.
Another attorney, Thomas Ahearne, disagrees: "The Supreme Court ordered full compliance by 2018, not 'during 2018,'" said the legal representative for the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools. This is the coalition that secured what's known as the McCleary decision by the high court in 2012. "Full compliance by 2018 requires full compliance in the 2017-2018 school year," Ahearne added.
Both Republican and Democratic legislators are mighty proud of their efforts this year to comply with McCleary, but even by the most charitable assessment, they're still in the doghouse according to a couple of sources. Both the Supreme Court and the NEWS group issued critical reviews of the legislators' first report last year on McCleary progress.
In the aftermath of that criticism, it would seem the lawmakers would become more compliant with the court ruling, rather than more nitpicky about details. They point to recent memos from the court that said the Legislature should focus on real and measurable progress, another memo mentioning steady progress and still another asking for significant progress. "Those are all very variable terms," Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, said. "Hopefully we can arrive at some consensus." And that kind of response makes it seem like the funding of public education is about to once again become a subject for negotiation, which presumably is what the Supreme Court order sought to overcome.
The Legislature's second McCleary report to the Supreme Court is due Aug. 29. If harsh criticism is the answer from the court, and if legislators keep splitting hairs, then there would be the reasonable fear that education reform will be more contentious than it needs to be. And that would be a shame for students, teachers and parents throughout Washington.