This week the State Supreme Court issued another ruling in the ten-year-old education funding lawsuit known as McCleary.
At this point in the long-running case, the Court is trying to figure out whether the new education funding plan enacted in 2017 meets the State’s “paramount duty. . . to make ample provision for the education of all children” under the Washington constitution.
Because the new plan isn’t fully implemented by the Court-imposed 2018 deadline (by the State’s own admission the plan is completely rolled out by 2019 – one year later), the Justices opted to keep jurisdiction and continue the $100,000-per-day sanctions against the State.
But that’s not why this new opinion is a critical one. In the 46-page ruling, the Court resolved several complex legal issues that could have extended the dispute for many more years, and narrowed the State’s to-do list down considerably. Here’s how they did it.
1. The Court blessed the legislature’s school funding plan – In the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers enacted a plan that overhauls how we pay for schools, with the aim of ensuring the state – not local districts – pick up the bulk of the tab for teacher salaries and other components of basic education.
The Court held that, when fully implemented, the new funding plan “will achieve constitutional compliance.” The Court’s endorsement of the new plan means the legislature will not have to go back to the drawing board and rewrite the law. And that moves everyone closer to the finish line.
2. The State’s funding formulas are constitutionally sound – one of the more complex aspects of the case involves funding formulas. The State relies on a “prototypical school” model to determine how much money to send to each district, then leaves it up to those districts to allocate funds accordingly. But plaintiffs sought a different formula – one that would require reimbursement of actual costs for all 295 school district (that’s 1.1 million students across the state).
In siding with the State, the Court held the prototypical model is an “evidence-based” formula that supports the “actual costs” of the program of basic education while giving districts the flexibility needed to meet local needs.
The reimbursement model proposed by plaintiffs did not define a precise dollar amount, and by plaintiffs’ own admission would have required more time (and more legal briefs, more hearings, etc.) to gather data from each school district. Again, by resolving this issue in favor of the State, the Court moved the case further along to closure.
3. Achievements unlocked – basic education’s components are now funded – There’s a bundle of required components rolled into what’s commonly-referred to as “basic education.” The Court analyzed these one-by-one and determined that each discrete element is now adequately funded. Again, this finding helps bring the case to a close, as the legislature will not have to revise these complex formulas.
Exit strategy – While the Court recognized the State’s substantial investments in schools, the Justices took issue with the timing of the plan. Put simply, the State missed the mark by one year. And that’s why the Court kept jurisdiction and ordered the State to figure out how to implement the funding sooner – by September 2018.
But given the complexity of the issues, and especially considering plaintiffs’ push to expand the scope – and by extension the duration – of the case, the Court’s ruling suggests the Justices very much want a solution and closure.
Now it’s up to the legislature to figure out next steps and report back to Court by April 2018 with a plan.
We’re almost there.