Landmark Supreme Court Case

The week before session the Washington Supreme Court decided the McCleary case unanimously in favor of the plaintiffs – two families and a number of school districts who claimed that the state had historically underfunded its primary duty to fund education. As those of you who have followed my writings over the years know, I agree with the plaintiffs and feel like the last decade of my work in the legislature has been justified.

CR Douglas of Fox News interviewed me on the issue. I’d include a nice embedded video here if I knew how to do it. Click here for the link to the KCPQ interview.

I also wrote a piece over the weekend before session while I was still angry about the headline in the Seattle Times about the decision. The text below is a little strident, but lays out my analysis of the issue: cutting basic education, and perhaps cutting ANY education is off the table this year.

Last week the Seattle Times published a story with the headline “Court ruling won’t protect schools from more cuts.” The article stated that “everything is still on the table” with regards to budget cuts in education. They must not have read the same court decision we did.

The unanimous Supreme Court decision upholding Judge Erlick in the McCleary case on school funding is unequivocal: the Legislature cannot cut basic education funding regardless of the budget difficulties we face.

While “the legislature generally enjoys broad discretion… in discharging its duty under article IX, … the legislature may not eliminate an offering from basic education for reasons unrelated to educational policy.. such as fiscal crisis or mere expediency.”

Basic education includes: class size, special education, transportation, materials, English as a second language (ESL) instruction, and the extra money we send to schools that have large numbers of students from low-income families. This comprises over 93% of the K-12 budget. Proposals reducing the number of days in the school year have always been unwise, now it is clear that they are unconstitutional.

This is just the beginning of what the justices wrote. We’re still trying to analyze the details, but we may face significantly stronger guidance from the court. They were not impressed when the legislature added $33.6 million to K-3 class size reduction under reform legislation “but at the same time it cut $214 million for a separate ‘non-basic education’ program that went to reducing class size in K-4, resulting in a significant net loss in K-3 class reductions.” The Court noted that despite a few efforts at enhancements called for by SHB 2776, “overall K-12 funding – including funding for basic education –sustained massive cuts in the 2011-13 operating budget.” These observations may lead us to interpret the decision as prohibiting any cuts at all in K-12, a conclusion that makes the 2012 supplemental budget even more difficult to implement.

The strongest interpretation of the decision would force us to make measurable progress towards funding the implementation schedule set out in the basic education redefinition we did in 2009. This could cost as much as $500 million this year, and more than $1 billion in the next biennium. This is not an extreme interpretation – 7 members of the court voted to take the extraordinary step “to retain jurisdiction over this case to monitor implementation of .. the State’s compliance with its paramount duty”.

In the court’s view, a basic education gives students the “basic knowledge and skills needed to compete in today’s economy and meaningfully participate in this state’s democracy.” The court agrees we should implement this over time, but did not seem tolerant of excuses about fiscal problems.

“This court cannot idly stand by as the legislature makes unfulfilled promises for reform”.

This is not a subtle decision. This is a landmark ruling from a unanimous court, with 2 members dissenting on the supervision part only. The McCleary case re-defines how the legislature must approach funding education. Our forebears wrote very strong language into the constitution about the primacy of education in the missions assigned to the state. The legislature has failed to live up to the lofty language of Article IX of the constitution, and now it should be very clear to everyone that the state must “make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.”

The Legislature should take heed of the decision and move forward, or the court may do it for us.


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.