‘Paramount duty” are the operative words for the 2013 Legislature.
As in: “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.”
That sentence – from the Washington Constitution – spells out lawmakers’ overriding obligation; it is the core of the state supreme court’s McCleary decision.
The high court spoke pointedly to the Legislature last January when it defined those words:
• “Paramount duty,” the justices said, means “a duty that is supreme, preeminent or dominant.”
• “Education” means “the basic knowledge and skills needed to compete in today’s economy and meaningfully participate in this state’s democracy.”
• “Ample” means “fully, sufficient, and considerably more than just adequate”; it means “liberal, unrestrained, without parsimony ...”
And: “Ample funding for basic education must be accomplished by means of dependable and regular tax sources.” It can’t be left to local school levies, which depend on fluctuating property values and the whims of voters.
It’s telling that legislative leaders, Republicans and Democrats alike, haven’t pushed back at McCleary. They could have made the constitutionally respectable argument that, under the separation of powers, the judiciary can’t bark out orders to the Legislature.
Instead, they’ve all pretty much meekly hung their heads and said, “OK.”
That doesn’t mean some of them won’t try to covertly sabotage McCleary by refusing to subordinate their own spending priorities or seek new taxes if necessary.
It does mean that the court said something blindingly obvious and impossible to rebut: Past legislatures have failed the state’s children – especially its poorer children – in defiance of the Washington Constitution.
The Legislature has until 2018 to fully fund its own definition of basic education. To get there, though, it must immediately start taking big steps in that direction. Lawmakers this year may have to budget an additional $1.5 billion or more for schools to make the first down payment. Some of that can come from shifting existing tax burdens from local districts to the state.
Money is only part of the solution. The public wants a better school system, period. That means reforms and accountability as well as funding. Without change, schoolchildren will simply get a more expensive version of what they’re getting now – which for too many of them isn’t enough.
McCleary presents a tough challenge to the 2013 Legislature. It also offers lawmakers a historic opportunity to show that – unlike their predecessors – they took the words “paramount duty” seriously.