McCleary Case – Education Funding in the courts

Closing arguments were heard last week in the “McCleary case.” The summary below from one of our non-partisan staff attorneys is very brief, but clear. (As is usual with her work – we are lucky to have someone this smart working for us.)

This suit will provide further impetus for the legislature to finish the work we started in 2261 last year and actually specify the numerical values in the bill. More on this as we get our legislative strategy prepared for the session.

Staff commentary:

Closing arguments took place yesterday in the McCleary basic education lawsuit, marking the end of an eight-week trial.  Judge Erlick was very engaged and asked both attorneys difficult and pentrating questions.

Unsurprisingly, the judge did not rule from the bench.  Per the state constitution, the superior court has 90 days in which to render a decision, and the judge indicated that he would probably need the full allotment.  The judge also indicated that he might request further briefing and arguments on additional issue as he works through the process of rendering a decision. 

 To summarize the arguments very briefly: 

 Plaintiffs (Network for Excellence in Washington Schools, a coalition of school districts, parents, education organizations, etc.)

The plaintiffs asked the court to do four things:

  1. Define the constitutional terms “paramount,” “ample,” and “all.”
  2. Define the constitutional term “education.”
  3. Rule that the state is not fully funding this definition of “education.”
  4. Order the state to conduct a cost study that determines the cost of funding this definition of “education.”

 Plaintiffs argued that the current basic education funding formulas result in a tautology:  the state argues that it has funded the formulas, therefore the state has funded basic education.  In requesting that the court define “education,” the plaintffs are asking the court to issue a more substantive, program-based definition, in contrast to the the BEA’s focus on ratios and funding allocation methods.  Specifically, they asked the court to reaffirm School Funding I and then rule that 1209 and the Essential Acacdemic Learning Requirements define education, in order to “take away the state’s excuses.”  . 

 Plaintiffs then argued that the evidence demonstrates the state is not funding this definition, citing transportation underfunding, drop-out rates, WASL failure rates, and reliance on levies.  Plaintiffs also set forth arguments about why school construction must be included in the state’s constitutional funding obligations

 The court asked plaintiffs why they were basically asking for yet another K-12 study, and whether full implementation of the BEFTF recommendations or 2261 would resolve the matter.  Plaintiffs responded that history has shown that future legislatures do not do what previous legislatures promised.  In conclusion, they declared that the legislature has not defined the content of basic education nor designed a program to implement it.

 The State

In response, the state told the court that events have overtaken the lawsuit—since the suit was filed in January of 2007, the legislature has convened the BEFTF and enacted 2261.  The state argued that 2261 is really what the plaintiffs are looking for, and that the court should let that effort continue.  At the same time, just because the state is changing the system and moving ahead with a solution, it doesn’t follow that the old system was constitutionally faulty.  The state distinguished the present situation from the facts facing the court in the 1977 School Funding I case, where the legislature had entirely failed to define a program and establish a funding mechanism.  Instead, the legislature is meeting its constitutional duty of reviewing and revising programs and funding.   

 The state further contended that and that the plaintiffs’ argument in effect contained a flawed tautology—that every dollar spent by a school district must be part of the state’s funding obligation.  On several grounds, the plaintiffs had not met their difficult burden of proving that the current system is unconstitutional.

 In response to a hypothetical from the court—what if the court were to find that levy dollars were being used to subsidize basic education?—the state (without conceding the point) explained that the court should use the same restraint as did the court in School Funding I:  tell the legislature to fix the problem, but leave the method to the legislature. 

 In conclusion, the state argued that plaintiffs’ remedy was bad law, bad science, and unworkable.

 Comments

This is a very brief summary of five hours of argument, that concluded a two-month trial, so it necessarily omits a lot.  Needless to say, it is very difficult to predict how a court may rule.  This trial is just one milestone in the long legal process.  Assuming the court issues a decision in January, in all likelihood the ruling will be appealed to the state Supreme Court.  It generally takes six months to a year for the state Supreme Court to accept review and hear arguments, with another six months to one year (at least) for the court to issue its decision.

About the Author

Ross
I am the Director of the Department of Early Learning for Washington State. I formerly represented the 48th Legislative District in the State House of Representatives, chairing the Appropriations committee and spent many a year at Microsoft.