It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders….
—Article IX, Section I, Washington State Constitution
Earlier this year, the State Supreme Court ordered the Washington Legislature to provide a plan by April 30, 2014, for fixing the state’s unconstitutional education funding system. The McCleary v. Washington decision found that the state was violating its constitutional obligation to amply fund basic education and gave lawmakers a 2018 deadline to fix this violation.
The League of Education Voters and Center for American Progress recently hosted a panel discussion, The Battle over School Funding: The Legislature v. the State Supreme Court to discuss the case and the Legislature’s response. Panelists included Senator Christine Rolfes; former Justice Phil Talmadge; Frank Ordway, LEV’s Director of Government Affairs; and Billy Corriher, Director of Research, Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC.
The panel of judicial, legislative, and policy experts engaged in a spirited conversation on education funding in our state.
While the Washington Legislature submitted a report to the Supreme Court on April 30 as required, Sen. Rolfes admitted that it was not a plan and described the report as a means of informing the public what actions the Legislature had taken to address McCleary.
Frank added that it was “politically impractical” for the Supreme Court to ask for a plan by the end of a 60-day short legislative session when heading into an election year. “There was no way you could reasonably see a real plan in a short session with the calendar of activities the Legislature goes through.”
Former Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge described the current situation with McCleary as “uncharted waters,” and said the Court basically had three ways it could potentially respond to the Legislature:
- By holding the Legislature or the leaders of the Legislature in contempt.
- By ordering the appropriation of money from the State.
- By ordering taxation.
All three of these options, Justice Talmadge says, are “utterly unprecedented.”
All of the panelists expressed concern that the Court’s response to the Legislature’s report could result in little more than a turf battle, which would have the ultimate effect of causing the public to become disillusioned with the state’s political process.
“If the Court comes down too heavy-handed, we might end up talking about who has the power to do what as opposed to how are we funding our schools” concluded Frank.
Sen. Rolfes agreed that the potential power struggle could upset the “fragile balance” between the judicial and legislative branches, but she also expressed appreciation that the Court has been “holding the Legislature’s feet to the fire” over school funding, particularly as the state recovers from the budget cuts made during the economic recession. Even the small amount of money ($58 million) that was sent to schools as a result of the 2014 legislative session is due to the Supreme Court’s ruling, according to Sen. Rolfes.
In spite of the complexity of McCleary and the discussion around how to best fund basic education, Frank describes the State Constitution’s education clause as a “glorious gift” from Washington’s founders:
Public education is incredibly important. We need to re-attach as individuals and communities to the power of public education to transform our communities’ lives, to ensure our economic opportunity, to close the opportunity gap. So while we are kind of caught in this moment of legal and political battles, for [the League of Education Voters], this is an expression of commitment to a unique clause in our constitution that guarantees that everyone has a shot at a meaningful education….
We have a chance in this state to ensure that every person who goes to school here gets a quality education, and there’s no greater opportunity that we can give our future generations than that.
And while we are caught up in McCleary, who’s got the right, where’s the money going to come from, for us, this is about the importance of public education in our state, and fulfilling the promise that a quality education provides.
Watch the entire panel discussion below, or learn more about school funding in Washington state.