School funding lawsuit to trial

The school funding lawsuit filed by a coalition of Washington school districts, community groups and education associations in January will proceed to full trial now that King County Superior Court Judge Paris Kallas has rejected a summary judgment motion on the case.

In its lawsuit, the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools coalition (NEWS) claims that the state has not upheld its constitutional obligation to fully fund public education for all children.

Hoping to avoid a lengthy trial, NEWS filed for a summary judgment, whereby the court rules on a case without full hearing, in May. But judge Kallas denied the motion on Aug. 24, and requested a full trial since “numerous material facts in the lawsuit were in dispute.”

The news came as a disappointment to school administrators across the state, including Mercer Island interim superintendent Gary Plano.

“We’re disappointed but the decision wasn’t unexpected,” Plano said. “By the very nature of school funding, this is a very complicated system.”

The Mercer Island School District has been pressing the state to uphold its constitutional responsibilities since 2004, when it filed the Alliance for Adequate Funding of Special Education lawsuit with 11 other Washington school districts. The group is arguing that the Legislature has failed its legal duty to finance special education.

“It is very clear. The state is not funding special education for any of our schools and it needs to be. We are all united in this problem,” said superintendent Cyndy Simms.

Over the past decade, the State Legislature has ignored a growing financial demand for special education, the alliance contests. As a result, school districts such as Mercer Island have been forced to use local levy funds to cover the costs.

Last year, the district used approximately $400,000 in levy funds for special education, said Simms.

“The general operating levy is there to enhance and enrich state-funded education. It is supposed to go beyond what the state pays for, not fund what the state should be paying for,” she added.

According to NEWS attorney Thomas Ahearne, both lawsuits come down to re-defining the state’s definition of basic education.

Presenting the NEWS case to judge Kallas, Ahearne pointed out that it had been three decades since the Supreme Court ruled on the definition of basic education in the Seattle School District vs. State lawsuit of 1978. Therefore, the current legislature is meeting outdated educational duties.

Mike Blair, executive council chairman of NEWS, echoed this point.

“There really isn’t an [updated] definition of basic education — that’s the problem,” he said. “We want to solidify what this basic education definition is. Then we think the Legislature needs to study and determine what the cost is to ensure these requirements.”

According to a recent study by the Educational Policy Improvement Center, in order for Washington’s public schools to be adequately funded, it would take an additional $3.45 billion in annual investment. These funds would go toward special education and reducing class size, among other academic needs.

The same study pointed out that Washington ranks 42nd in the nation for state education spending per student.

“Our state’s leaders have not yet been able to develop a consistent, equitable and long-term education funding solution. Year by year, we struggle for adequate funding. Our current system contributes to inequity between communities, promotes instability, and deprives our teachers and students of basic education needs,” reads a statement on the NEWS home page.

Shortly after Kallas announced her decision on Aug. 24, the coalition requested that she reconsider the state’s definition of “basic education,” this time taking into account essential learning requirements for today’s education system, not the outdated 1970s model.

“We hope that Kallas asks the state what their thoughts are regarding our request to reconsider the legal definition of basic education. That’s what we’re looking for. That’s the first step,” Blair said.

Then NEWS wants Kallas to rule that the Legislature has failed to adhere to the Constitution, which defines education as the state’s paramount duty.

So far, Kallas has not yet responded to the coalition’s request. Although she agreed to consider it, the King County judge may decide to ignore the motion and move ahead with trial.

In the meantime, school districts across Washington are keeping their fingers crossed.

“We are hoping that once the whole case is presented, we will obtain the relief that we are seeking,” Plano said.

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