Editorial | School funding ruling brings new questions

Judge John Erlick ruled that the Washington state Legislature is not fulfilling its constitutional duty to fully fund basic education. It is an obvious but long-awaited acknowledgment to what educators have known for some time — the state has not met its obligation to adequately provide for educating its citizens.

In his 78-page ruling in McCleary et al v. State of Washington, Erlick ruled that the word “paramount” in Article IX, Section 1 of the Constitution means “preeminent, supreme and more important than all others” and that funding K-12 education is “the state’s first and highest priority before any other state programs or operations.”

Erlick ruled that the state “has not designed or implemented a state system that (1) determines the actual cost of amply providing all Washington children with the education mandated by this court’s interpretation of Article IX, §1, and (2) fully funds that actual cost with stable and dependable state sources.”

He ordered the Legislature to “proceed with real and measurable progress” in determining the costs of providing students with the “basic knowledge and skills needed to compete in today’s economy and meaningfully participate in this state’s democracy,” and to establish a stable, dependable funding source to pay those costs.

But how? Where will the money come from?

In its latest forecast, the Washington State Economic and Revenue Forecast Council says that while certain sectors of the economy are showing signs of life, the recovery is going to take time.

The November 2009 state revenue forecast for the 2009-11 biennium is $28.8 billion —$760 million less than expected as of last September.

How will the shortfall be made up? How long will it take? In the meantime, just who will be cut to help pay for schools?

Just as it is for other urgent requests such as boosting child protective services, roads and highways and health care, the need far outweighs the money available. Each has its own crisis looming. Taxes must increase or services must be cut further. What the Legislature must do is think way outside the box in how it collects and allocates the state’s money. Yet the judge’s decision is the first and most important step in moving toward a goal of the proper level of funding for educating students of all abilities and needs.

Erlick is blunt in his assessment of the impact of doing nothing.

“Society will ultimately pay for these students,” Erlick wrote. “The state will pay for their education now or society will pay for them later through unemployment, welfare or incarceration.”

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