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For more than 30 years Washington courts have ruled that our state chronically fails to abide by its own rules for educating kids. But the McCleary decision, handed down in 2012, actually sets a hard deadline by which we must change the picture.

The Legislature has until the 2017-18 school year to come up with $6.8 billion, an amount determined to provide all 1 million schoolchildren here equitable opportunities.

While many questions remain unanswered — like, what if we blow the deadline? — a panel of four experts met recently at Seattle’s Town Hall to give voters a sense of progress thus far (see video below). Though the state representative, teachers union lobbyist, education finance negotiator and equity activist came at the topic from varying perspectives, they agreed on many points. Among them:

1: The yawning gulf in school achievement between students of different zip codes is no longer acceptable, either morally or practically.

“The opportunity and achievement gap is almost a criminal reality in our state,” said Frank Ordway, director of government relations for the League of Education Voters. “We have low-income kids and kids of color who are not graduating from high school, or succeeding in school prepared to succeed in life. It’s a dramatic social cost to our state.”

2: While pockets of excellence exist, there is no equity statewide — meaning that students living in Medina, for instance, get a qualitatively different public school experience than those in Yakima.

“The zip code a kid is born in is probably the best predictor of what’s going to happen,” said State Rep. Ross Hunter (D-Medina). “It’s the most depressing statistic in my life.”

Hunter, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, cited research that shows spending more on low-income kids improves their outcomes.

“Money really does matter here,” he said, adding that McCleary will mean putting a “disproportionate amount of effort into the people that society has disproportionately disadvantaged.”

3: Washington’s tax system — among the nation’s most regressive — will never raise enough money to plug the holes that exist in school funding. In other words, said the panelists, abiding by the court’s ruling will mean dramatic changes, either to the existing tax structure or to future expenditures.

“We cannot wait until the state has enough resources,” said Shawn Lewis, a lobbyist for the teachers union. “We have got to fix the system so the system can support all of us.”

Broadly speaking, McCleary will act like a Rorschach Test for Washington, forcing voters here to get uncomfortably honest with themselves about what is worth funding.

“You want to offer the best but you don’t want to pay for it,” said Sharonne Navas, executive director of the Equity in Education Coalition. “We have to take a very introspective look and say what is it that we truly value?”

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