Court may decide $1 billion more for schools is not enough

Washington’s public schools are in line for a much-needed infusion of money from the state, but it may not be enough to get the Supreme Court to ease off lawmakers to do more.

Gov. Jay Inslee signed a two-year budget containing an additional $1 billion for basic education programs serving roughly 1 million students.

Though Republican and Democratic lawmakers are patting themselves on the back for the accomplishment, it’s only a slice of what needs to be put into schools to comply with a court mandate to fully fund basic education by 2018.

Justices in last year’s McCleary case required lawmakers to submit periodic progress reports to the court. The next one, in the form of a legal brief, is due in two months, after which the attorney who represented the families who sued will file a response.

Then the court is expected to issue its analysis this fall.

Many lawmakers in both parties are confident that the court will be satisfied to see they are pumping $1 billion over the next two years into most of the various components of basic education.

Justices will also want to see if lawmakers came up with a “regular and dependable” source of dollars to cover similar-sized investments in future budgets. And they may look closely at the reforms aimed at improving the academic achievement of the state’s lowest performing students.

“I have no intention of sugar coating what we did and did not do,” said state Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, a member of the bipartisan panel entrusted with writing the legislators’ report.

“We’re moving in the right direction. We didn’t make any historic changes. We made piecemeal improvements,” Frockt said. “Overall, on funding, I would give us a C. On regular and dependable funding, I would give us a D.”

Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, chairman of the Senate education committee, gave the Legislature a grade of B+ for its effort.

“We have a regular and dependable source. It’s called the general fund,” he said. “Unless the economy tanks, we have and will continue to have $33 billion and we must make it a priority to put money into education.

“For the last 10 years, we haven’t chosen to prioritize (education),” he said. “It’s now locked in. We believe we’ve turned the tide toward making education a priority.”

Litzow said the court should take notice of the money put into programs targeting minority students of low-income families who perform worse than their peers.

Reform is the one area they came up short and will be the focus of the Majority Coalition Caucus in 2014.

“On the reform piece, we were not able to get everything through the House, so we will have to come back and address that,” he said.

Currently, basic education covers several different programs with a combined cost of nearly $13 billion dollars in the budget, which ends today.

These include special education, bilingual education, the Learning Assistance Program, which assists underachieving students in all grades, instruction for students in juvenile detention centers and state institutions, and the highly capable program that aids those performing at top academic levels.

Basic education also covers the separate and growing expenses of bus transportation and of materials, supplies and operational costs.

Lawmakers can define and redefine basic education as they want. Most recently, they did that with bills passed in 2009 and 2010. In its McCleary decision, the court told the Legislature it needed to pay for what it had promised.

Jerry Cornfield is a reporter for the Daily Herald, a sister publication of the Mercer Island Reporter.

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