The Washington State Supreme Court recently held an important hearing about progress in the long-running education funding case known as McCleary.
Here are three main questions the Court tried to resolve:
Question 1 – It’s clear a lot more money has been allocated to schools. Is that enough to end this case?
Both the state’s attorney (Alan Copsey) and the attorney for plaintiffs (Tom Ahearne) were on the receiving end of many questions about whether the State has fulfilled its duty under the Washington State Constitution to make ample provision for the education of all children.
State’s position – The State argues, and previous rulings from the court have agreed, that “ample provision” means funding the formulas set out in a law passed in 2012 that overhauled our state’s education system.
The State points to recently enacted budgets to show it has either met or gone well beyond those formulas. So, over half of the state budget now goes to education, and by 2019 public schools in Washington will see an unprecedented $4.6 billion in spending. In fact, over the next four years the state will invest $7.3 billion in new spending on our K-12 schools. State Senate staff estimate that by SY 2019-20, Washington will rank 5th nationally in state funds per pupil.
Plaintiffs’ response – Funding increases notwithstanding, Plaintiffs believe the legislature should engage in more fact-finding to figure out, and then reimburse, actual costs for every school district (that’s 295 districts). Note that some justices focused mostly on the narrower issue of whether the legislature could speed up its rollout of the new teacher pay system to meet the court-imposed 2018 deadline.
Why this matters – If there’s still no agreement on how to measure “ample,” and if as Plaintiffs’ attorney suggested there should be more fact-finding (or, as the state characterizes it, “moving the goal posts”), this case could drag on for many more years. Other states are instructive. In New Jersey, school-funding litigation first filed in 1981 continues to this day.
Question 2 – How can we bring this case to an end? – The justices in their questions sought specific recommendations from both parties about how to resolve the case.
State’s position – The State offered two solutions: dismissal or continued oversight through 2019 to ensure implementation of the plan that passed out of the legislature in 2017.
Plaintiffs’ response – Attorney Ahearne struggled to set out a clear remedy, prompting several pointed queries (emphasis added):
Justice Wiggins: “Mr. Ahearne – I’m not sure what you think we should do. . .. Do you think we should remand this . . . to take evidence and make a finding of fact as to what’s ‘ample’? I guess I just don’t know, especially in light of the fact that I think is undisputed that a great deal more money is going into the K-12 education system now, but I’m not sure. So, what is it you think we should do to second guess or recalculate?”
Justice González: “I still don’t hear you answering the direct question: ‘What do you want this Court to do?’ Not repeating what you think the shortfalls or the problems are, but tell us specifically, ‘Court, I want you to order this, that and the other thing’ so that we know what the request is, so that we can decide whether to grant it or deny it.”
And the consensus among veteran Olympia reporters covering the case? The justices are frustrated with both parties.
After nearly 50 minutes, takeaway is justices are tired of #McCleary, frustrated w/both sides and struggling w/what to do next w/this case
— Austin Jenkins N3 (@AustinJenkinsN3) October 24, 2017
Justices skeptical of WA's arguments last couple years.
— Joseph O'Sullivan (@OlympiaJoe) October 24, 2017
Question 3 – Can the Court make these types of fine-grained policy decisions? – Whether they realized it or not, some questions from the bench show just how ill-suited courts are at choosing which policies are best for the state’s 1.1 million students. One exchange between Justice Mary Yu and Copsey about a new provision to help attract and retain teachers shows why:
Justice Yu: “Should I be concerned about the state adding this regionalization measure to the salary formula? I mean – I just have to say that – at a common-sense level – that doesn’t make any sense to me. . ..”
Copsey – “This is a policy choice the legislature has made. The idea is to put every school district on equal footing. . ..It was an attempt at equity – at fairness – to give every school district the money it needs to fund teachers. . ..The constitutional question is not is it the best policy judgment.”
Have we lost our vision? – Courts are well-equipped to resolve issues of access in education, such as whether students with disabilities are entitled to an education alongside their peers. But when it comes to policy, the wheels of justice (still) turn slowly. That means every back and forth between the legislature and the courts about policy choices (even those tied to funding) inevitably lead to analysis paralysis that’s not conducive to building a world class school system.
State Schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal recognized as much when he launched an ambitious long-term plan for Washington’s schools earlier this year. In his proposal, Reykdal acknowledges that after many years slogging it out over funding, we’ve lost sight of the big picture (emphasis added):
The goal of Washington’s public education system is to prepare every student who walks through our school doors for post-secondary aspirations, careers and life. To do so, we must embrace an approach to education that encompasses the whole child. In the ongoing struggle to amply fund our schools, we have lost this larger vision. The challenge to amply fund schools to the satisfaction of the Supreme Court is not the final goal – it is merely the first step in a much larger transformation that will propel Washington state’s K-12 schools atop the national conversation in quality, outcomes and equity.