Lawmakers have but one choice on education funding

There’s no mistaking the position of State Superintendent Randy Dorn about what the Legislature must do to meet the Supreme Court’s decision in the McCleary case. The state’s education chief has repeatedly told lawmakers that anything less than $1.4 billion in new revenue over the next biennium will not satisfy even the minimum requirements of McCleary.

Dorn considers $1.4 billion a mere “down payment” toward fully funding K-12 education, based on estimates from the Quality Education Council. He agrees with the QEC that the total purchase price really falls somewhere between $3.4 billion and $4.6 billion.

Based on the Quality Education Council’s recommendations, the Legislature is falling woefully short of meeting its constitutional obligation to K-12 education.

The Legislature created the Quality Education Council in 2009 through ESHB 2261, which set a 2018 deadline for implementing a fully funded K-12 education plan. A year later, lawmakers passed SHB 2776, placing the QEC’s recommended funding levels into statute.

That same year, a Superior Court ruled in McCleary v. State that legislators were not adequately funding education.

In 2012, the now-well-known Supreme Court’s McCleary decision upheld the lower court’s 2010 ruling. The Justices went further to retain jurisdiction because they didn’t trust the Legislature to met specified elements of the QEC recommendations.

In a sharply worded ruling, the high court said, “What we have learned from experience is that this court cannot stand on the sidelines and hope the State meets its constitutional mandate to amply fund education.”

It was an accurate foreshadowing of this year’s double-overtime legislative session.

The QEC recommendations include fully funding four key elements as the first phase for implementation: the transportation of students to and from school, all-day kindergarten, lowering K-3 class sizes, and materials, supplies and operating costs (MSOC).

The QEC estimates those four elements will cost $3.4 billion in this biennium.

And there were further requirements for the state to fully fund the salaries of current educational staff, which the QEC estimated at an additional $1.1 billion as part of phase II. School districts all over the state continue to use local levy money to pay portions of teachers’ salaries.

Finally, the QEC recommended the state provide additional funds for increasing the number of teachers and enhancing their compensation as the last phase of meeting the state’s obligations. That will undoubtedly cost more than the other elements combined.

In a meeting with The Olympian’s editorial board this week, Dorn said school districts violate the state constitution every day by funding teacher’s salaries and pupil transportation — both basic education expenditures — through local levies.

As a former state representative, Dorn acknowledges the Legislature’s difficult task to meet the McCleary requirements. But legislators don’t have an option. When a judge fines a defendant, there’s no room for negotiation.

A state budget that doesn’t provide at least $1.4 billion in new K-12 education funding likely will draw attention from the Supreme Court. And that could set up a unique conflict between branches of state government.

But it’s difficult to see how legislators will meet the requirements of McCleary by 2018 without new tax revenue as proposed in the House budget. This week’s revenue forecast providing an extra $320 million is a drop in the bucket when more than $4 billion is needed. No amount of economic improvement over the next several years will fill that gigantic gap.

We need to be, as Dorn says, honest with ourselves, by which he means a bigger public conversation about our state’s tax structure.

We believe that Washingtonians want a 21st century public school system that serves all children and meets our state’s constitutional requirements. The Legislature has a responsibility to do better than rank us 42nd in the nation on per pupil state funding.