Education plaintiffs not satisfied by legislative results

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SEATTLE -- When the Legislature made its annual report to the Washington Supreme Court this week on progress toward improving the way the state pays for public schools, lawmakers said they did the best they could. Legislative critics do not agree.

The attorney for a coalition of school districts, educators, parents and community groups that won an education funding lawsuit against the state expects the Supreme Court to rebuke the Legislature and tell lawmakers they aren't trying hard enough.

"I think they are doing what they think they can get away with," said attorney Tom Ahearne.

In January 2012, the Supreme Court ruled the state was not meeting its constitutional duty to public school children and ordered the Legislature to start paying the full cost of basic education, plus the education reforms they had adopted in recent years. Those reforms included all-day kindergarten for all kids and smaller class sizes.

The court also ordered the Legislature to stop relying on local tax dollars to make up for missing state dollars and to find a stable source of education dollars for the future. The court gave lawmakers until 2018 to fix those problems.

The superintendent of public instruction grades this year's report "incomplete." Randy Dorn said lawmakers must find more money for education when they meet in January or they'll never make the 2018 deadline set by the Supreme Court.

Lawmakers did boost education spending by about $1 billion this year. But the details tell the real story, Ahearne said.

Some of Ahearne's points:

• Lawmakers reinstated some teacher pay taken away during the recession, but paid for it by not giving teachers their voter-approved cost of living raises. "They brought it back up to the level that was declared unconstitutionally low."

• The Legislature put more money into transportation, but decreased their ultimate funding goal to make that progress look better. "If you move the goal line and cross it, that's not a touchdown."

• They cut class sizes for kindergarten and first grade, but left second- and third-graders without the smaller classes they were promised.

Ahearne said he will get into more detail in the plaintiffs' formal response to the legislative report, due at the end of September.