On K-12 Education, Washington Supreme Court Makes Itself a Super-Legislature

The Seattle Times published this column on January 12, 2012.

Last week the state Supreme Court decided in McCleary v. State of Washington that lawmakers have failed to provide enough money to K-12 education to fulfill constitutional requirements. The court also held the state's constitutional duty will be satisfied only if the Legislature spends money on an education law passed by the Legislature in 2009, ESHB 2261.

The Supreme Court has overstepped its authority by trying to micromanage schools. The court interprets the meaning of the constitution and the laws, and applies these interpretations to the facts of particular cases. The Legislature and the governor, not the Supreme Court, set education policy and decide how schools will be funded.

The judges plan to "retain jurisdiction" over this case to make sure the Legislature funds the schools according to their dictates. The court, however, has no authority to force the Legislature to do its bidding. The Legislature is not subordinate to the Supreme Court, but is an equal branch of government.

In addition, the Supreme Court issued a decision based on a flawed premise: that school funding has been cut. The court also erred in blessing ESHB 2261, a bill that will increase state spending on education by as much as $3.4 billion a year (money the state doesn't have), but which will not improve student achievement.

Let's first examine the court's mistake in saying school funding has been cut. The ruling says on page 30 that "overall education funding — including funding for basic education — sustained massive cuts in the 2011-13 operating budget."

This is incorrect. Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Legislature increased education spending by $789 million, raising spending from $12.99 billion in the 2009-11 budget to $13.78 billion in the 2011-13 budget. The most recent budget, passed in December, reduced the education spending increase by only $74.8 million.

Why does the court believe education has sustained massive cuts? These judges are confused by the Byzantine nature of our education-funding system. Education spending is separated into Basic Education and Non-Basic Education, with multiple subcategories of spending. This is partly because of court-directed distinctions drawn between the state and local roles in education.

These distinctions allow education activists to claim the state has not funded Basic Education when, for example, local districts decide to pay their teachers more than the state provides. Also, education activists claim as a right the receipt of past bonuses for Initiative 728 class-size reduction and Initiative 732 for teacher pay, even though activists know that legislators and the governor have not funded these bonuses since 2008.

The judges also erred by endorsing ESHB 2261. This law significantly expands public-education programs, including the provision of all-day kindergarten for all children, cutting class sizes to 17 in grades kindergarten through third grade, and other new programs. When the Legislature passed this bill, it ignored research showing the most important factor in improving student learning is the effectiveness of the classroom teacher, not all-day kindergarten or smaller class sizes.

The judges want to act like a super-legislature, dictating how schools should run, but not taking any responsibility for funding them.

Schools in Washington received $10,326 dollars per student in 2010-11 from all state, local and federal revenue sources. This is the highest amount ever provided since Washington became a state in 1889. By any reasonable measure, taxpayers are providing ample money to educate children.

Court decisions dating back to 1977 have created a hopeless morass: No one understands how education funding works.

The Legislature should simplify school finance by combining all funding into one state education grant for every child, with additional dollars for special-needs students. That grant would follow the child to his or her public school. The student-education grant would be the clear and concise measure the Legislature would use to show that school spending actually increases every year.