In a victory for the parents, teachers, superintendents and community leaders who'd argued that the state isn't adequately funding its public schools, a King County judge has ordered the state Legislature to establish the cost of providing a basic education for all students in Washington state, then pay for it.

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As King County Superior Court Judge John Erlick finished reading his school-funding decision Thursday, big smiles broke out on the faces of the winners — the parents, teachers, superintendents and community leaders who’d argued that the state isn’t adequately funding its public schools.

Erlick strongly agreed with the plaintiffs’ contention that the state has long been failing its duty under the state constitution to provide for the “ample” education of its 1 million school children.

He ordered the state Legislature to establish the cost of providing a basic education for all students, then pay for it, as the constitution requires.

“Thirty years have passed since our state Supreme Court directed the state to provide stable and dependable funding for basic education,” he wrote. “The state has made progress toward this constitutional obligation, but remains out of compliance. State funding is not ample, it is not stable, and it is not dependable.”

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Fiscal crisis or not, he said, the constitution can’t be ignored.

The case is the biggest education-finance lawsuit in three decades. But Erlick’s decision is just one of several steps for the plaintiffs to win more funding for schools.

First, they may face an appeal from the state, especially given the fact that it faces a budget shortfall of $2.6 billion. In a prepared statement, Gov. Chris Gregoire said she and her staff will review the decision and determine “where we go from here.”

Second, as judges have done in the past, Erlick left it up to the Legislature to decide how much more money schools should receive, and when.

“This court,” he wrote, “will not micromanage education and will give great deference to the acts of the Legislature.”

The state must proceed with “real and measurable progress,” he said, but he set no deadline.

That was the one part of the decision that the state’s attorneys found comforting.

“He left the remedy for whatever ails the system in the Legislature’s hands, and we believe that’s where it belongs,” said Assistant Attorney General Bill Clark.

Clark also said it appears that the judge would allow the state to fulfill his order by carrying out plans in a bill passed last year — House Bill 2261 — which set 2018 as a deadline for a number of changes in how the state funds it schools. The bill also expanded the state’s definition of what constitutes a “basic” education.

“If the judge has left us with that, then obviously if we’ve already resolved to do it, then we should be comfortable with that,” Clark said.

Still, the case was a clear victory for plaintiffs.

Parent Stephanie McCleary, the lead plaintiff, said her head was “just spinning.”

“I’m just really excited that this might benefit my children while they’re in the school system.” Her daughter is a high-school sophomore and her son is a fifth-grader, and both attend school in Chimacum, on the Olympic Peninsula, where McCleary works in the school district’s main office.

Call for action

She and others called on the state to act now to raise school funding.

Thomas Ahearne, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, said state lawmakers will have to look themselves in the mirror and decide how long they plan to continue to violate the state constitution.

“Hopefully, the majority of them will have the courage to do what the constitution requires,” he said.

If they choose to stall and delay, he said, they’ll end up back in court.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, although a state official, also was celebrating, saying that he campaigned on a promise to raise funding for schools.

“It’s a great day for kids. It’s a great day for students, and I believe that we’ve had about a decade and a half of moving backward.”

For starters, he said, the decision means that the Legislature should refrain from making cuts in its K-12 education budget this year.

Marge Plecki, an associate professor at the University of Washington and expert on school finance, said the decision didn’t surprise her.

Constitution is clear

“It’s a reaffirmation of what the constitution outlined quite specifically,” she said.

The Washington Constitution says education is the state’s “paramount duty.”

Few other states are charged with giving education such a high priority. Yet Washington lags many other states in how much it spends per pupil. By some measures, its per-pupil spending ranks 42nd in the nation.

Erlick’s ruling comes after a six-week trial that took place in September and October.

The plaintiffs, which include the state’s largest teachers union, 30 of its affiliates and 30 school districts, made many of the same arguments as a group of school districts did in the last big school-finance suits in the 1970s.

And Erlick came to many of the same conclusions as the judge in that case, Robert Doran of Thurston County Superior Court.

He cited Doran’s opinion, which said basic education is more than reading, writing and arithmetic but “embraces broad educational opportunities needed in the contemporary setting to equip our children for their role as citizens and as potential competitors in today’s market as well as in the marketplace of ideas.”

Like Doran, Erlick said that school districts shouldn’t have to depend on the uncertainty of passing local property-tax levies to cover basic education costs. After the 1970s rulings, districts’ reliance on local levies dropped to less than 10 percent of their budgets. More recently, they’ve crept up to about 20 percent again.

Erlick said the state has done plenty of studies and that legislative promises to increase school funding aren’t enough.

“Absent a court mandate,” he wrote, ” the residents of this State, and their children, risk another 30 years of underfunding of basic education.”

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com