Monday, June 14, 2021
June 14, 2021

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In Our View: Duty Must Be Fulfilled

Lawmakers make progress, address issues with public school funding

The Columbian

The state Supreme Court last week handed out mostly passing grades to lawmakers — but also one significant incomplete.

In assessing the Legislature’s plan to reconfigure funding for K-12 public schools, justices determined that lawmakers have largely met the demands spelled out in the 2012 McCleary v. Washington ruling. Notably, however, they also said that waiting until 2019 to fully fund salaries for teachers and staff will not meet the deadline of Sept. 1, 2018.

Most observers say that another $1 billion in funding must be approved during next year’s legislative session to meet the mandate. Until lawmakers meet the “paramount duty” spelled out in the state constitution, the court will retain jurisdiction and leave in place a $100,000-a-day fine that now amounts to more than $80 million.

In court, lawyers for the state argued that implementing funding increases and a vast change to the state’s property-tax system requires that the deadline be pushed to 2019. That, however, merely reflects a failure on the part of lawmakers, who long were derelict in their duty to meet the McCleary mandate. As the justices stated: “The need to act ‘all of a sudden’ is of the Legislature’s own doing, and if its hands are tied, it tied them.”

Since the 2012 McCleary ruling, lawmakers have incrementally provided billions of dollars to lower class sizes, offer full-day kindergarten, increase transportation, and cover the costs of school supplies. Those were meaningful successes, but they left the heavy lifting — salaries — for this year. When they finally broached the issue, it required three overtime sessions before a budget was passed just in time to avoid a partial shutdown of state services.

Claiming that changes to the funding mechanism require time to be implemented ring hollow when lawmakers should have been serious about the issue beginning in 2012 rather than waiting until deep into the 2017 session.

In truth, the conundrum facing lawmakers dates back to the 1970s, when a state Supreme Court ruling determined that Washington was not providing “ample provision for the education of all students,” as dictated by the constitution. When decades of inattention failed to remedy that shortcoming, the court retained jurisdiction following its 2012 McCleary ruling. The gist of the order was that school districts had become too reliant upon local levies to fund basic education because the Legislature was not providing enough funding.

The plan passed by this year’s Legislature and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee relies largely upon an increase to the statewide property tax that will begin next year. Individual districts then will face caps leading to the reduction of local levies, essentially swapping levies from local jurisdictions to the state while providing more equity for districts with low property values.

Meanwhile, many educators throughout the state say the new funding plan shortchanges special education. The state argued that such concerns were invalid at “this late stage of the remedial phase of McCleary.” Again, if lawmakers had addressed the issue in a timely fashion, there would have been plenty of time for the vetting of such concerns.

Undoubtedly, attempting to bring school funding into compliance with the state constitution has not been an easy task, and the Legislature has made great progress in the past four years. But, as the state Supreme Court has determined, while lawmakers have run a good race, they have not yet crossed the finish line.