The fight over the Washington State Legislature’s school funding plan -- and the 2018 deadline for ample funding for basic education required by the state Supreme Court – is turning into a brawl.
The Court’s 2012 ruling in McCleary v. Washington, a lawsuit that saw a family successfully suing the state in a bid to stop successive waves of school cuts, requires lawmakers to craft a plan for stable funding for the Washington State Department of Education.
The amount estimated to cover McLeary range significantly, up to as much as $3.5 billion per year to start. The issue has been given some urgency by the federal government’s decision not to renew Washington’s exemption from the No Child Left Behind law.
Now the Court is threatening to punish the Legislature for missing its April 30 deadline for coming up with a “complete plan” outlining where the education money will come from – and even children’s rights advocates are pushing back against the possibility that essential state services will be cut to bolster education.
The Legislature did file a plan with the Court but it was not “complete;”the Court then ordered the Legislature to appear Sept. 3 and explain why it shouldn’t be sanctioned for failing.
The Children’s Alliance, Columbia Legal Services and the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance last week filed an Amicus Curiae brief asking that the state “refrain from funding education in a way that jeopardizes housing and other basic services to children and families.”
The groups support Mc Cleary but say vulnerable communities will be hurt if lawmakers “rob Peter to pay Paul.”
“If we cut social programs to pay for education, everyone’s worse off,” said Children’s Alliance Executive Director Paola Maranan.
“In addressing our failure to uphold kids’ right to a basic education, we don’t want the solution to exacerbate the problem.”
But Washington State Superintendent Randy Dorn last week filed his own motion with the Court demanding they take strict measures to hold the Legislature accountable.
“The state Legislature and the Governor should be given the 2015 session to make substantial progress on fully funding basic education,” his office said in a statement. “If that doesn’t happen, the Court should make clear that there will be certain consequences, including, if necessary, a requirement that the State be barred from funding non-education elements of the budget.”
“The Legislature passed a plan to fully fund education,” Dorn says. “Now they need to fund it.”
Dorn has another legislative fight on his hands because of the federal government’s NCLB ruling, which means the state must go back to “Adequate Yearly Progress” reporting in reading and math.
“Washington State has been doing great work under our waiver agreement,” Dorn said in a statement when the ruling was handed down last April. “We have developed our own system that more accurately reflects the progress being made by schools across the state.
“But to get our waiver renewed for next year, the Department of Education was clear: The Legislature needed to amend state law to require teacher and principal evaluations to include student growth on state tests, when appropriate.
“I agree: Student progress should be one of multiple elements in a teacher’s evaluation,” he said. “Unfortunately the teacher’s union felt it was more important to protect their members than agree to that change and pressured the Legislature not to act.”
On the McCleary Act requirements, Dorn argues that the Court should give the Washington Legislature one more year to come up with a specific plan for education funding; if the lawmakers fail, they would get the “hammer.”
“I’m asking the Court to hand the plaintiffs a hammer if enough isn’t accomplished in 2015. That hammer could stop spending that doesn’t apply to basic education,” Dorn said last week.
“That could include declaring all, or part, of the 2015-17 operating budget unconstitutional.”
He added that he does not believe such sanctions should be rolled out yet.
“As a former legislator, I understand the difficulty of the work that needs to be done,” he said. “There are only two major state budgets left before the 2018 deadline: 2015 and 2017. That leaves only two opportunities to satisfy McCleary.”
The children’s rights coalition argues that paying for schools by cutting or freezing basic services – such as housing -- would only hurt low-income families, which they say are already in a funding crisis of their own.
“Cutting programs could not have come at a worse time, as students in homeless households are at an all-time high,” the groups said in a statement. “The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction reported 30,609 homeless students in the 2012-13 school year.”
“For children across Washington, the lack of a safe, stable home can be a huge barrier to learning,” says Housing Alliance executive director Rachael Myers. “We already have proven, innovative programs that create affordable homes and keep families and children stably housed. They just need to be adequately funded.”
But Dorn is drawing a line in the sand.
“In 2009 and 2010, the Legislature passed a plan to fully fund basic education,” he said. “The Supreme Court accepted House Bills 2261 and2776 as the plan. Now the Court is saying the Legislature needs to fund the plan they, themselves, have adopted; and I agree with the Court.
“The most important thing to understand is that this issue is about students, not adults,” he said. “It’s about what’s right for our students. It’s about giving them a quality education that will help them be successful in their futures. As a society, that’s our responsibility.”
For more information go to www.childrensalliance.org; www.columbialegal.org; wliha.org; www.k12.wa.us; and www.courts.wa.gov.