As the McCleary school-financing case winds down, Washington’s students still need leaders to improve education and equity, the state’s paramount duty.
THE lawyer who represents the coalition that sued the state over the way it pays for public schools concedes Washington lawmakers might have met the requirements laid out by the state Supreme Court in its 2012 McCleary ruling. But he’s not satisfied — and neither should the justices nor anyone else be.
Wisely, in his latest filing to the Supreme Court, Tom Ahearne did not ask the court to retain jurisdiction over the McCleary school-funding case. Rather: “We are asking the court to make it clear that the job is not done,” he said.
That nuance is important. His filing responds to the state attorney general’s office, which asks the court, more or less, to do just that. State lawyers argue the state has achieved full compliance with article IX, section 1 of the Washington constitution, which says “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.”
Ahearne says, not so fast.
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Because the state reform is based on funding formulas that might prove inadequate, such a declaration could foreclose the opportunity for future lawsuits if the sweeping funding changes don’t amply pay for basic education for all students.
The Supreme Court is expected to make its final ruling on whether the Legislature has fulfilled its constitutional duty sometime in the next few weeks or months.
But the jury will be out for months, even years, on whether the Legislature got it right.
Already, school districts are saying the state has not provided enough money to cover basic education. But a few years’ experience with the new funding system will provide more insight into whether more money and staff is required.
The possibility of legal action hanging over the state if education funding and outcomes do not improve may prove helpful.
Regardless of the justices’ action, the Legislature must continue to improve the education system, from birth to college. Graduation rates, especially among low-income students, must improve. Students from different ethnic and economic groups must receive the same educational opportunities. Achievement gaps must shrink.
Some school districts say the new funding rules are inadequate and they must use local levy dollars to supplement state dollars for extra help for children outside of the classroom, from mental-health counseling to nursing to housing assistance for homeless families. The Legislature should consider supplementing these wraparound services if more money would help children stay in school and succeed.
As the McCleary decade winds down, Washington’s students still need leaders to tirelessly work on improving education. No matter where the state’s priorities shift, education will remain the state’s paramount duty.