Dorn right: Lawmakers need to do more

Like naughty school children, state lawmakers spent the summer bickering over how to justify falling short of fully funding K-12 public education to the state Supreme Court. Their final report sent over to the Temple of Justice late last week argues desperately that $982 million added to school funding this year fulfills the court’s mandate set down in McCleary.

Whether or not the justices will give lawmakers a passing grade remains to be seen. But the man charged with overseeing K-12 public education in this state is grading the lawmakers’ efforts as “incomplete.”

State Superintendent Randy Dorn chastised the legislator’s report this week saying the Legislature missed its goal by at least a half-billion dollars. He’s right on the money.

Knowing it was out of compliance with the constitutional requirement to fully fund education, the Legislature created the Quality Education Council in 2009 to determine a K-12 funding level that satisfies a definition of basic education. The QEC came up with a plan for about $4.5 billion in two phases by 2018, which the Legislature approved in 2010 and placed into statute.

The first phase called for $3.4 billion in the 2013-2015 biennium, which the Legislature missed by about $2.5 billion or roughly 70 percent. Not even close.

Not to be deterred, however, lawmakers argue in their report that they made progress. Rep. Susan Fagan, a Pullman Republican, said “I think we made amazing progress.”

Imagine a student asking for a gold star because she got 30 percent correct on a test. Any teacher would raise an eyebrow at that doomed pitch, and we expect Supreme Court justices will do the same.

Dorn is pressing legislators to add at least another $400 million in the supplemental budget they will approve in the 2014 session. He’s being too lenient. The Legislature must eventually come to grips with the additional $2.5 billion recommended by its own QEC advisory body to satisfy McCleary. And the next session is none too soon.

It’s difficult to see how lawmakers will do that without new revenue. While the economy is improving, it’s doing so slowly, and clearly not on a path to fill the gigantic McCleary gap.

That challenge won’t go away regardless of how the high court responds. We recommend lawmakers do some remedial study on this topic before the next legislative session in January.