Friday, January 13, 2012


Court vows to oversee reforms; Chimacum's Blair calls ruling success



“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."

Public School System

“The legislature shall provide for a general and uniform system of public schools. The public school system shall include common schools, and such high schools, normal schools, and technical schools as may hereafter be established. But the entire revenue derived from the common school fund and the state tax for common schools shall be exclusively applied to the support of the common schools.”

“They’ve got reforms, but they have some catch-up to do to fund them.”
Stephanie McCleary
Chimacum plaintiff

by Nicholas Johnson of the Port Townsend Leader |

Chimacum School District Superintendent Mike Blair was delighted in 2010 when a King County judge ruled that the state is violating its own Constitution by not providing enough money for education. Recent court decisions are more reasons for celebration. Photo by Allison Arthur

Chimacum School District Superintendent Mike Blair was delighted in 2010 when a King County judge ruled that the state is violating its own Constitution by not providing enough money for education. Recent court decisions are more reasons for celebration. Photo by Allison Arthur

1/11/2012 6:00:00 AM | The state Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Jan. 5 that the Legislature has, for more than three decades, failed to meet its primary constitutional responsibility: to amply fund basic education for all Washington children.

“By the Legislature’s own terms, it has not met its duty to make ample provision for ‘basic education,’” wrote Justice Debra Stephens in an 85-page opinion. “This court cannot idly stand by as the Legislature makes unfulfilled promises for reform.”

Former Chimacum School District 49 superintendent Mike Blair called the ruling a success, saying the court not only acknowledged the state’s violation of the constitution, it clarified disputed definitions of “paramount” and “ample,” and declared its continued jurisdiction over the issue.

“The ball is back in [the Legislature’s] court,” said Blair, who retired as superintendent in 2010, but is still president of the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools (NEWS), a key plaintiff. “Even in tough times, they can’t cut education. They must fund it first, no excuses.”

The court acknowledged the Legislature’s most recent, 2009 effort to reform funding formulas with HB 2261, which aims to implement updates to the 1977 Basic Education Act by 2018. And, although it expressed respect for the Legislature’s responsibility to implement those reforms, the court declared it would maintain jurisdiction to oversee timely implementation.

“Ultimately, it is our responsibility to hold the State accountable to meet its constitutional duty,” reads Justice Stephens’ opinion. “This court intends to remain vigilant in fulfilling the State’s constitutional responsibility.”

The court directed both parties – state and plaintiffs – to prepare briefs regarding whether the state Supreme Court, Judge John Erlick’s trial court or a third party, special magistrate should exercise that oversight.

Thomas Ahearne, lead plaintiff attorney, said that while the court’s ruling sends a clear message to lawmakers, he remains skeptical as to whether they will abide.

“Kids don’t vote,” said Ahearne, adding that lawmakers have little to gain politically by prioritizing K-12 education in the state budget. “That’s what it comes down to.”

Stephanie McCleary and her two children are the plaintiffs for which the current lawsuit is named. McCleary works in the Chimacum School District office as personnel director, and her children – Kelsey and Carter – attend Chimacum schools.

McCleary said she is glad the court chose to maintain jurisdiction over the case in order to ensure the Legislature doesn’t cut education to cover an overall budget shortfall.

“For me, that’s a strong ruling,” she said. “[Legislators] would be breaking the law if they cut education just to save money. They’ve got reforms, but they have some catch-up to do to fund them.”

She said her children were excited about the court’s ruling.

“They learned the importance of education in general,” said McCleary, who said she was forced out of her comfort zone in order to see the case through. “It was worth it. They learned a lot.”

The Legislature convened on Jan. 9 for a 60-day session, during which it must fill a nearly $2 billion shortfall.


Gov. Chris Gregoire applauded the court’s decision and called for a half-penny sales tax increase to invest in education.

“This is not about partisan politics,” Gregoire said during a press conference on Jan. 5, adding that the state sales tax hasn’t been increased since 1983. “This is about stepping up to the challenge despite the tough times and asking, ‘What does the state want to look like when we get out of this recession? Are we going to invest in our future or are we going to compromise things and set our values behind and leave people out, which is not good for them and not good for us?’”

Kirby Wilbur, Washington State Republican Party chairman, blamed the state’s failure to prioritize education funding on Democrats.

“This fiasco comes after Democrats have controlled the governor’s office for 27 straight years,” he said in a press release. “Their failure to prioritize state spending on our kids and our future economic health is exactly why we need fresh thinking in Olympia.”

State Attorney General Rob McKenna’s response focused on the court’s praise for the Legislature’s 2009 reform bill, HB 2261, and despite the court’s vow to oversee legislative progress, said McKenna (also a declared Republican candidate for governor), “We’re pleased the court continues to recognize the primary role of the Legislature in determining how to meet its constitutional duty.”

For the Washington Education Association, the Washington State Board of Education and the League of Education Voters, the court’s decision “is a huge victory.”

“The Legislature can no longer punt on full funding for public education,” said WEA president Mary Lindquist. “The Legislature needs to act immediately to remedy this injustice against our children and students.”


In 1975, the Seattle Public Schools district saw two levies fail, putting strain on its ability to buy books, pay staff and fund essential programs. The district’s reliance on local levies had grown from 6.8 percent of its budget in 1960 to 25.6 percent in 1974.

After filing suit a few years earlier, Seattle Public Schools looked to the state Supreme Court in 1978 to interpret Article 9, Section 1 of the state constitution, which reads:

“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.”

The court’s interpretation of terms such as “paramount,” “ample” and “all” led to its ruling that the state had not clearly defined “basic education” or identified dependable, regular funding sources to provide that education.

Lawsuit in 2007

About 30 years later, Chimacum’s Blair took center stage as president of NEWS, a statewide coalition of school districts, education organizations and community groups. In 2007, NEWS sued the state, arguing it had provided a clear definition of basic education, yet failed to fully fund it, evidenced by districts’ growing reliance on levy dollars to supplement the state’s basic education funding.

McCleary, et al. v. State went to trial for nearly eight weeks in the fall of 2009, resulting in Superior Court Judge John Erlick’s February 2010 ruling that the state had failed to amply fund the basic education program it had established since the 1978 ruling.

The state then appealed to the state Supreme Court, which heard arguments on June 28, 2011.


Washington Supreme Court ruling should take education cuts off the table

The Washington State Supreme Court's admonition that the state should better fund public schools sends a strong message to lawmakers as they tackle their ongoing budget crisis. No more cuts should be made to education and savings in other parts of government should be funneled to education.

On K-12 education, Washington Supreme Court makes itself a super-legislature

Guest columnist Liv Finne says the Washington Supreme Court made several errors in its McCleary v. State of Washington ruling on K-12 funding. It overstepped its authority by retaining jurisdiction and erred in endorsing a flawed education-reform law on the books.

Seattle Times Editorial |

January 6, 2012 at 3:46 PM :: THE Washington Supreme Court ruling on state education funding should build a sturdy barricade against more budget cuts to the K-12 system.

The state budget crisis continues. There is no easy money. The Legislature must see the ruling as a strong impetus to speed up education reforms that save money and improve efficiencies. And it should make cost-saving reforms in other parts of government, funneling that money to education.

Some new revenue ought to be part of the equation but the bottom line is this: Protect education funding. This page has argued for leaving education spending — from early learning to higher ed — mostly untouched.

In ruling that the state is failing to meet its constitutional duty to fully fund K-12 education, the high court added an important twist: It will not sit silently by while its opinion gathers dust. The Supreme Court plans to ensure the Legislature implements its 2009 education reform plans. When the Legislature passed its major education-reform bill, it agreed to put changes in place by 2018. The court wants it to move faster. We agree.

The nine-member court was united about education funding. Justices Jim Johnson and Barbara Madsen dissented in one area — that the court's ongoing oversight of education spending trespassed on the separation of powers. But the court is not placing itself above the state Legislature, but rather adding strict accountability to a thoughtful ruling.

That means tough cuts and reforms throughout government. Education doesn't escape the challenge.

Reforms that make the K-12 system more efficient and responsible is key. The biggest obstacle in this area has been the Washington Education Association, the teachers union, which has consistently blocked key reforms

Among them:

• The state should consider whether it makes sense for 295 school districts to separately negotiate labor contracts. Unions negotiate in their best interest but the result is expensive contract agreements in tough budget times. These deepen districts' dependence on local levy funds and, for poorer districts, force cutbacks in other areas of education spending.

• A good start to addressing the power imbalance between local districts and the teachers union would be to fine unions that go out on strike. They are not just wasting education dollars, they are breaking state law.

• The Legislature must also stand up to the WEA about health-care costs. The state spends a billion dollars a year on health-care benefits for school employees. A recent state Healthcare Authority report found $109 million a year would be saved by consolidating employees into a single plan. The savings would largely be in administrative costs and insurance commissions. That's 10 percent of health-care costs that could be redirected to kids in the classrooms.

• Lawmakers must prioritize a continued rollout of new, more robust evaluation and professional development for principals and teachers.

• Online learning and technology changes could also produce savings in other areas. Legislators, particularly Democrats who get the most pressure from the teachers union, must push back. The union represents employees; lawmakers must represent all citizens.

The court's ruling shifts the conversation from "should we spend more?" to how we spend what we have. Those expecting a blank check will be disappointed. The task before the Legislature is to pair critical reforms with shrewd investment.

This time the court is watching.

By Liv Finne Special to The Seattle Times|

January 11, 2012 at 3:46 PM :: Last week the state Supreme Court decided in McCleary v. State of Washington that lawmakers have failed to provide enough money to K-12 education to fulfill constitutional requirements. The court also held the state's constitutional duty will be satisfied only if the Legislature spends money on an education law passed by the Legislature in 2009, ESHB 2261.

The Supreme Court has overstepped its authority by trying to micromanage schools. The court interprets the meaning of the constitution and the laws, and applies these interpretations to the facts of particular cases. The Legislature and the governor, not the Supreme Court, set education policy and decide how schools will be funded.

The judges plan to "retain jurisdiction" over this case to make sure the Legislature funds the schools according to their dictates. The court, however, has no authority to force the Legislature to do its bidding. The Legislature is not subordinate to the Supreme Court, but is an equal branch of government.

In addition, the Supreme Court issued a decision based on a flawed premise: that school funding has been cut. The court also erred in blessing ESHB 2261, a bill that will increase state spending on education by as much as $3.4 billion a year (money the state doesn't have), but which will not improve student achievement.

Let's first examine the court's mistake in saying school funding has been cut. The ruling says on page 30 that "overall education funding — including funding for basic education — sustained massive cuts in the 2011-13 operating budget."

This is incorrect. Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Legislature increased education spending by $789 million, raising spending from $12.99 billion in the 2009-11 budget to $13.78 billion in the 2011-13 budget. The most recent budget, passed in December, reduced the education spending increase by only $74.8 million.

Why does the court believe education has sustained massive cuts? These judges are confused by the Byzantine nature of our education-funding system. Education spending is separated into Basic Education and Non-Basic Education, with multiple subcategories of spending. This is partly because of court-directed distinctions drawn between the state and local roles in education.

These distinctions allow education activists to claim the state has not funded Basic Education when, for example, local districts decide to pay their teachers more than the state provides. Also, education activists claim as a right the receipt of past bonuses for Initiative 728 class-size reduction and Initiative 732 for teacher pay, even though activists know that legislators and the governor have not funded these bonuses since 2008.

The judges also erred by endorsing ESHB 2261. This law significantly expands public-education programs, including the provision of all-day kindergarten for all children, cutting class sizes to 17 in grades kindergarten through third grade, and other new programs. When the Legislature passed this bill, it ignored research showing the most important factor in improving student learning is the effectiveness of the classroom teacher, not all-day kindergarten or smaller class sizes.

The judges want to act like a super-legislature, dictating how schools should run, but not taking any responsibility for funding them.

Schools in Washington received $10,326 dollars per student in 2010-11 from all state, local and federal revenue sources. This is the highest amount ever provided since Washington became a state in 1889. By any reasonable measure, taxpayers are providing ample money to educate children.

Court decisions dating back to 1977 have created a hopeless morass: No one understands how education funding works.

The Legislature should simplify school finance by combining all funding into one state education grant for every child, with additional dollars for special-needs students. That grant would follow the child to his or her public school. The student-education grant would be the clear and concise measure the Legislature would use to show that school spending actually increases every year.

  • Liv Finne is the education director at Washington Policy Center, a nonpartisan, independent policy-research organization. Visit

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