As the state’s Supreme Court justices promenaded into the state House chambers last week in preparation for the Governor’s State of the State address, I couldn’t help wondering if they were carrying handcuffs under their robes.
But I suppose it would be premature to cuff the governor and legislators, seeing how the state’s highest court has given them until April 30 to come up with a plan for how they are going to fund basic education in Washington.
How did we get into a position where one branch of our government is threatening the other two branches with contempt of court? The answer begins with the adoption of our state constitution and the preamble to Article IX: “It is the paramount duty of the state to 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.”
Over the years, legislative action has defined what that education should be and the courts have made it clear that the state is responsible for paying for it.
The dilemma is that while the Legislature is fond of adding to the definition of basic education, it hasn’t been as rigorous about funding it. This is a huge problem for school districts that have struggled to meet expectations without sufficient state funding. As a result, school levies have been pressed into paying for basic education –even though the court has ruled that local levies are not to be used for that purpose.
Locally, we have two school bonds up for a vote right now in Lynden and Ferndale. I’m working on an article about them that should be live Thursday.
In the height of the recession, the Legislature, wishing to do something about education but not having the votes to pay for anything substantive, passed two bills that basically dug the hole deeper.
In 2009, the Legislature adopted House Bill 2261 which revised the definition of Basic Education (i.e. increased funding needs) and established new methods for distributing state funds to school districts to support Basic Education. The next year, the Legislature adopted House Bill 2776 which specified formulas to guide funding for principals, teachers, administrators, librarians, counselors, office staff, custodians and other personnel essential to running a school. Senator Ericksen (a state representative at the time) voted for the 2009 bill on final passage but not the 2010 bill. Senator Ranker and Representative Morris voted for both bills. Our other three area legislators were not yet in office.
When the funds needed to pay for this legislation did not emerge, a lawsuit ensued and the court issued the McCleary decision. Ironically, state attorneys cited HB 2261 and HB 2776 as evidence that the state was remedying deficiencies in the K-12 funding system. And it would have. . .had those remedies been funded. That order came in 2012 (two full legislative sessions ago) and the court is clearly losing its patience.
According to the court’s most recent order, Washington needs to increase its funding of basic education by at least $3.6 billion by next biennium (July 1, 2015 to June 30 2017) or risk being held in contempt of court.
“We will not idly stand by as the legislature makes unfulfilled promises for reform. Our decision in this case remains fully subject to judicial enforcement,” reads the January 9 order by the Supremes.
The House Republican solution is to meet the basic education funding needs first before any other state services are covered. In the absence of a revenue increase, this decision is the same as cutting other state services by the amount increased for education.
An Olympian editorial (carried on the Bellingham Herald website) said it could not “see how lawmakers can satisfy the Supreme Court without creating new revenue.”
Our state school superintendent, Randy Dorn, has proposed raising the sales tax as a way of fully funding education. But, as discussed in an earlier article, our sales tax is a regressive tax that hits lower income households harder than higher income households.
Draconian cuts, unfair tax increases . . . Where are those handcuffs?