Although the McCleary decision was confined to K-12 education, that span is too limited for ensuring all students have a good education. Preschool and college must also improve.
The Washington Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the state has met its constitutional mandate to fully fund basic education in public schools. But this is merely a momentous milestone on a long road, not worth a graduation celebration.
Make no mistake: The work to improve education for all students is far from finished.
Washington has not radically improved student outcomes in the more than six years since the justices declared in their 2012 McCleary decision that school funding was unconstitutional.
As the justices note in their unanimous order Thursday, the plaintiffs still dispute the constitutional adequacy of the state school funding formulas. The 2018-19 school year will be the first real test of whether schools have enough money to pay the costs of basic education.
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In some areas, however, deficits already are clear. Lawmakers should make key adjustments during the 2019 session, especially in putting more money into special education and making adjustment to regional pay for educators.
An OSPI survey of school districts found state funding for special education remains more than $100 million short after the 2018 legislative session. Many districts plan to continue to use local tax-levy dollars to pay some of the cost of special education, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling that local dollars are not to be used for basic education. If they don’t use local dollars to supplement, some school districts may find themselves in the legal crosshairs of another school-funding lawsuit.
The new system of regional teacher pay also requires another look. Action by the 2018 Legislature has resolved some pay conflicts between districts in Western Washington. But the new system still has problems with some school districts in the central and southwestern parts of the state paying significantly more than those nearby.
The state has added $8 billion in state dollars to the K-12 budget since the Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision. The Legislature met the court’s demands to take on the responsibility of paying for basic education, rather than relying on local property taxes. And some important education reforms like smaller classes in the early grades have been funded.
But the results are still lacking.
Too many high school students are dropping out before graduation, especially among children of color. For the class of 2017, 81.9 percent of white students graduated in four years, while 71.5 percent of black students, 72.7 percent of Hispanic students and 60.3 percent of American Indian or Alaskan Native students graduated.
The differences in academic performance between students from different economic and ethnic groups have barely moved since the state started focusing more on educational outcomes. For example, among America Indian and Alaskan Native third graders, only 26 percent are meeting the state standard in English language arts and 31.6 percent, in math. The numbers for white third graders are 60.7 percent in English and 64.6 percent in math.
Although the McCleary decision was confined to K-12 education, that span is too limited for ensuring all students have a good education. Access to preschool and college must also improve.
Washington’s promising early-learning program enrolls more children every year, but every 4-year-old from a low-income family should be in a high quality preschool preparing for elementary school. State officials estimate nearly 4,000 eligible children would participate in 2018-19 if the Legislature had funded more slots in the state’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program.
Low-income college students still are not guaranteed a state scholarship to continue their education. Nearly 14,000 needy students still sit on the waiting list for the State Need Grant. The waiting list is shrinking, but it should disappear.
Keep working, lawmakers, to improve education for every child in Washington.