While the state Supreme Court has lifted its jurisdiction over a long-running school-funding case, much work remains to ensure quality education for all Washington students.
Last week, the court issued a unanimous order declaring legislators had met their mandate in the McCleary v. Washington case. That case led to a 2012 ruling in which the court determined the Legislature had violated the state constitution, which says fully funding public education is the state’s “paramount duty.” With the state providing inadequate funding, local property-tax levies were used to pay for basic education items, leading to vast disparities between wealthy school districts and poorer districts.
Lawmakers spent years chipping away at the issue, but in 2014 the justices imposed a $100,000-a-day fine for noncompliance. The Legislature last year approved a statewide property-tax increase earmarked for education but delayed full funding of teacher salaries until 2019. The court acknowledged those efforts but said the delay in funding for salaries was inadequate, and this year lawmakers expedited that time frame to September 2018. Local officials expect sharp disagreements over how that money will be spent (https://tinyurl.com/ybksuqlb).
For residents, all of this means a sharp one-year increase in property taxes, with the state tax piled atop already approved local levies. Beyond this year, it should level out somewhat with a shift of taxes from local levies to the state property tax.
Sound complicated? It is. And it has been. But the court’s approval of the legislative action offers some hope that most of the issue has been settled and that Washington is on course to meet its paramount duty. “Now we can focus on policy geared toward kids rather than compliance with the court,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington.
Student success has been the underlying goal of the lengthy negotiations over funding, even if that goal often was obscured by political wrangling. And attention to that area is necessary. Education Week this year ranked Washington 20th among the states in terms of K-12 education; U.S. News ranked the state 26th in primary/secondary education.
While such rankings can be quibbled with, it is clear there is plenty of room for improvement — particularly in a state that is relatively wealthy and has a history of making education a priority. In other words, the Legislature’s work is not finished when it comes to bolstering education in Washington.
Among the pressing issues is funding for special education, which many school representatives say was inadequately addressed by the Legislature. A survey of school districts by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction found that a $100 million shortfall remains for such funding, which could lead districts to continue using local levies for basic education — and invite additional lawsuits.
Then there are persistent achievement gaps between districts and for students of color. Numerous socio-economic factors play a role in those gaps, but addressing them must be viewed as a wise investment in the future for all of Washington. Improving educational outcomes in distressed districts will rely upon improved efforts to train, attract and retain quality teachers; expanded early education programs; and adequate instructional materials. As critics often have noted, a student’s access to up-to-date equipment should not depend upon their ZIP code.
While legislators should be pleased the Supreme Court has approved the funding plan, they must not rest upon their laurels. Plenty of work remains.