The biggest lawsuit over school financing in 30 years goes to trial Monday in King County Superior Court, with a group that includes the state's largest teachers union and 30 school districts asking the court to tell the Legislature to provide ample funding for public education. Attorneys for the state argue that the lawsuit is...

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Stephanie McCleary still feels pride when she recalls the night about five years ago when the Chimacum School Board voted to sue the state of Washington for inadequately funding public schools.

Chimacum — a rural district near Port Townsend where there’s no rush hour and only flashing stoplights — was one of the first plaintiffs in what has become the biggest lawsuit over school financing in 32 years.

For such a small district, it was a big step, McCleary said. “It seemed like a very defining moment.”

As the case goes to trial today in King County Superior Court, McCleary, who works for the Chimacum district as a secretary and human-resources coordinator, will be there with her 10-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter.

They are lead plaintiffs for a group that includes one other family, the state’s largest teachers union and 30 of its affiliates, and 30 school districts. Seattle Public Schools is one, along with the Bellevue, Edmonds, Federal Way, Kent, Northshore and Shoreline school districts.

They are asking the court to tell the Legislature to do what they say it has failed to do for decades: Provide ample funding for public education.

Attorneys for the state argue that the lawsuit is moot because state lawmakers agreed this year to expand state support for public schools by more than $1 billion a year by 2018.

But the plaintiffs say the vote is just the latest in a long string of promises that legislators and governors have yet to keep.

Despite this year’s legislative action to increase spending, the plaintiffs note that state lawmakers made the biggest cuts in school spending in recent memory.

“There is always another excuse,” said Thomas Ahearne, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney.

1977 ruling

Washington’s Constitution says the state has a “paramount duty” to make “ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.”

Few — if any — other states give education such a high priority.

What “paramount” and “ample” mean, however, is at the heart of the current lawsuit — definitions not fully tested since the last major lawsuit over school financing more than 30 years ago.

As they’re doing today, school districts in the late 1970s argued they were financially strapped. In Seattle, voters had just turned down two school property-tax levies, forcing the district to slash programs and lay off teachers.

The Seattle School District sued along with about two dozen other districts, arguing that the Washington Constitution required the state to cover the costs of education and that they shouldn’t have to rely on the uncertainty of passing local levies.

The districts won. Thurston County Superior Court Judge Robert Doran, in a 1977 ruling later upheld by the state Supreme Court, agreed that the state was not living up to its constitutional duty and ordered lawmakers to define and fund a basic education for all students.

Basic didn’t mean just learning to read and write. As the state Supreme Court put it, “basic” meant the kind of education that equipped students to be citizens and competitors “in today’s market as well as in the marketplace of ideas.”

Local levies dropped

After Doran’s ruling, reliance on local levies dropped from an average of 20 to 25 percent of their budgets to less than 10 percent. Local levies were supposed to be only for “extras.” A second lawsuit a few years later expanded the state’s definition of basic education to include areas such as special education and transportation.

But those lawsuits didn’t settle the debate.

Some say they were just the start.

2 distinct views

In the trial that begins today before Judge John Erlick, plaintiffs contend the state never has fulfilled its constitutional obligation. Over the past three decades, they say, the gap between what the state provides and districts’ costs has only widened.

“If you look at what school districts actually have to spend to get electricity, or pay teachers or build buildings … and compare that to what the state funds, the amount the state funds is always smaller,” said Ahearne, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney.

Local levies on average again make up 20 to 30 percent of district budgets, more than double what they were just after Judge Doran’s decision.

Plaintiffs also point to national indicators that show Washington’s investment in schools is low: The state ranks 42nd in per-pupil spending, for example.

But the state says the case for underfunding is not as black and white as plaintiffs say.

Their case appears to be a “jumble of what the Constitution requires, and what it ought to require, and what the Legislature ought to require,” said Dave Stolier of the state Attorney General’s Office.

For the state, Stolier said, the case is about who determines what is a basic education. Plaintiffs, he said, “are attempting to get the courts to step into what’s legitimately the Legislature’s role.”

Stolier said the state has a Basic Education Act that lays out how much money should go to schools, how many days students should attend, and much more. Such “basic” programs were not cut this year, or in any year, he said.

And that’s what the Constitution requires, state attorneys say, not what some may believe will improve education, or what they believe is important for education.

They note that Washington students do well on national exams such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

“This case,” they wrote, “is about whether the state has put into place a system that provides … students with opportunities to obtain a basic education.”

“About political will”

Plaintiffs say the lawsuit was a last resort, pursued only after years of lobbying that went nowhere.

They also know that a favorable ruling isn’t a guarantee that schools will get more money. For that, they must take the fight back to the Legislature.

“The courts aren’t going to print money, nor is the Legislature,” said Lisa Macfarlane of the League of Education Voters, which isn’t part of the lawsuit but supports its goals.

“Ultimately, it’s about political will,” she said.

Still, Macfarlane and others see the lawsuit as an important tool, one that will help lawmakers who believe the state should provide more support for schools.

When Doran issued his landmark decision in 1977, McCleary was a teenager. She now has a teenager of her own.

As a district employee, she says, she sees “all the hard choices we’re continually having to make.”

“I’m just hoping we can see some kind of change before my kids get out of school.”

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or