In Our View: Funding K-12 Education

State lawmakers should take note of Supreme Court actions in Kansas and N.J.

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As the Legislature's short 2014 session drew to a close recently, news from the heartland served as a reminder that lawmakers' work is not yet finished for this year. By April 30, as instructed by the state Supreme Court, legislators must devise an adequate, specific year-by-year plan for funding K-12 education.

As the court has written in a finger-wag to lawmakers: "We have no wish to be forced into entering specific funding directives to the state, or, as some state high courts have done, holding the Legislature in contempt of court. But, it is incumbent upon the state to demonstrate … concrete action."

This has led to wide division in the state Capitol. Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, told the state Supreme Court via Twitter earlier this year to go pound sand and added the hashtag #StayInYourLane. Gov. Jay Inslee, meanwhile, in his State of the State address in January, took the opposite approach and said, "We need to stop downplaying the significance of this court action."

The conflict arises from the court's 2012 decision in McCleary v. Washington, which ruled that the Legislature has not abided by the portion of the state Constitution that reads, "It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders."

While lawmakers might resist the notion that the court can have a say on budgetary matters, evidence suggests that such defiance is misguided. That's where news from the middle of the country plays a part, as the state Supreme Court in Kansas delivered a similar ruling to its Legislature earlier this month. In 2005, that court indicated that it would close public schools unless adequate funding was approved, and the Legislature capitulated. Two weeks ago, the court ruled that lawmakers again are in violation of the Kansas state Constitution regarding school financing. More evidence: In July 1976, the state Supreme Court in New Jersey ordered schools closed until the Legislature appropriated adequate funding.

All of that plays a role in analyzing the situation in Washington. Here, former state Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge told The Seattle Times, "The authority of the court is pretty broad. They could, in effect, put the state education system in receivership and appoint a master to run it, and the master would have the authority to do a variety of things." Former Chief Justice Gerry Alexander said, "If I were the Legislature, I would take it seriously. I think the court laid down the gauntlet, and I think they will have to follow through. Otherwise their decision seems sort of meaningless — 'We want you to abide by the Constitution, but we're not going to do anything if you don't.' "

That course of action seems unlikely, which puts the onus on lawmakers. The McCleary ruling was not merely a suggestion or a mild request; it was a ruling by the highest court in the state and a command directed toward legislators. They were given until 2018 to reach full compliance by adding billions in state funding for K-12 education, and they responded by tacking on $1 billion in the 2013-15 biennial budget. But this year's supplemental budget added a paltry amount for education, and, as Baumgartner demonstrated, some legislative leaders are trying to buck the justices off their backs.

It won't work. The directive from the Supreme Court could generate a battle over the separation of powers in Washington, or it could result in lawmakers doing the right thing for students in the state. The Legislature has six weeks to decide which tack is more reasonable.