When the Legislature made its annual report to the Washington Supreme Court last
week on progress toward improving the way the state pays for public schools, lawmakers said they did the best they could under the circumstances. The Legislature’s 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. “The court is going to have to decide if we are just going to sit back and do nothing or are we going to be vigilant and make sure the constitution is enforced.”
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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 have 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 gives lawmakers an “incomplete” grade on this year’s report. Randy Dorn said lawmakers need to find some more money for education when they meet next 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 of how they got there and what they left out tell the real story, Ahearne said.
Some examples from his list:
• Lawmakers found money to reinstate some teacher pay taken away during the recession, but they 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,” he said.
• 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,” he said.
• They cut class sizes for kids in kindergarten and first grade, but that leaves second- and third-graders without the smaller classes they have been promised.
Ahearne said he will get into more detail when he writes the plaintiff’s formal response to the Legislature’s report, which is due at the end of September.
Dorn’s problem with the Legislature’s report is that they did not make enough progress financially. He believes they need to find another $400 million next year as well as a stable source of income for schools going forward.
“I didn’t come up with these figures,” Dorn said, pointing to the Legislature’s own estimates that the state needs to spend an additional $4 billion on education in a two-year budget cycle to meet the requirements of the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision.
Parents and teachers also have problems with the Legislature’s report.
“I think they’re just trying to ignore this away,” said Alfred Frates Jr., a PTA dad who has seen his three kids through the Shoreline School District while keeping a close eye on the Legislature.
Frates said he’s worried lawmakers won’t fix the problems even when the economy gets better. He’s also concerned that parents aren’t paying enough attention to what their lawmakers are doing in Olympia.
Rich Wood, spokesman for the state’s largest teachers union, says the members of the Washington Education Association were also disappointed with this year’s Legislature.
“We need to go a lot further to fully fund our K-12 public schools so schoolchildren get the education the Constitution says they deserve,” he said.