School Funding post-McCleary

A broken piggy bank filled with money.

A broken piggy bank filled with money.I have not yet completely read the long opinion Judge Erlick issued yesterday in a court case brought by school districts, parents, and educator groups but I’m excited by the summary and the implications for a positive impact on school funding in Washington. The judge ruled that the state does not adequately fund public education and that we are not meeting the constitutional requirement that we “amply provide for the education of all students.”

Like most judicial opinions that require the state to do something, rather than an opinion ruling some action of the state unconstitutional, there is a lot of deference given to the legislature in how to carry out the ruling. For example, when the US Supreme Court ruled in the Brown vs. Board of Education case the ruling phrase was that we should use “all deliberate speed” in eliminating segregation in schools. This was pretty ambiguous, but served as the basis for many actions, including federal protection of children attending previously forbidden schools and much court supervision over desegregation plans.

Judge Erlick ruled that the plan we passed last year (HB 2261, the result of our Basic Education Financing Task Force) was an acceptable framework for clearly stating what basic education entails and determining the cost. I’m pleased that the plan we produced meets the court’s approval, but now we will have to both close down the details of it AND determine a funding plan.

Our approach to determining the right amount of funding for K12 is called the “model schools” approach. We lay out the resources needed per building, and scale them based on the number of children in the school, and the number of children in the school that require special ed, gifted, or english langauge help, and the overall level of poverty in the school’s population. We adoped the basic structure of this approach last year, did a lot of detail work in the interim, and will adopt the final values for class size and other critical values this session.

Of course, this will be very contentious. In light of this ruling, determining the end goals in the definition of basic education will, in fact, require the state to fund them. This will necessarily result in less being spent on other priorities.

This interim we will have to address the financing plan – not how to spend it, but how to ensure that there is enough money available. I think we need to discuss many things about local and state property taxes and the right mix between them, including ways to make school funding more consistent and reliable.

I organized many of my collegues to sign a letter to the governor and the attorney general asking them to not appeal this case. I think Judge Erlich only pointed what is obvious to anyone who looks at our school system and compares it to the guarantee in our constitution, that school funding “is not ample, is not stable, and is not dependable.”

The Judge continues “Accordingly, the State is directed to determine the cost of amply providing for basic education and a basic program of education for all children resident in the State of Washington. The State must also comply with the Constitutional mandate to provide stable and dependable funding for such costs of basic education. Funding must be based as closely as reasonably practicable on the actual costs of providing such programs of basic education. The means of fulfilling this Constitutional mandate properly fall within the prerogative of the Legislature.”

We have work to do. I see a long summer working out the details of our approach.

For details you can read the actual opinion. 99 pages.

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.