This week the State Supreme Court issued an important ruling in the long-running school funding case known as McCleary. We’ve analyzed what this decision means here, and we’ve shared reactions from state elected leaders here.
In this latest ruling the Court gave its constitutional blessing to the school funding plan recently adopted by the legislature, and found that the State had adequately funded the components of basic education.
Because the opinion resolves the Plaintiffs’ most complex claims in favor of the State, it means we may now finally have a exit strategy out of this ten-year-old dispute. The only remaining issue is the timing – the Court wants the new plan rolled out faster – by one year – than the State had originally planned.
Below are key excerpts from the 46-page decision that provide the framework for the Court’s holding.
Significant progress funding schools – “[O]ver the past several years the State has made significant progress in fully funding the program of basic education, including by amply funding most of its components. Further, the 2017 legislature enacted a funding system that, when fully implemented, will achieve constitutional compliance according to the benchmarks that have consistently guided judicial oversight.” p. 1
Missed court-imposed deadline – “However, by its own admission, the State will not meet the established deadline of September 1, 2018, as to all components. Instead, the funding system adopted in  . . . delays by over a year implementation of a constitutionally compliant salary model, a critical part of meaningful reform. While the court can appreciate the political and budgetary challenges that may explain the State’s decision to postpone full funding of the salary model, it cannot accept part compliance as full compliance.” pp. 1-2
“The court’s constitutional responsibility is to the schoolchildren of this state who have an enforceable right under article IX, section 1 to an amply funded education. We cannot erode that constitutional right by saying that the State is now “close enough” to constitutional compliance. The goals have long been clear, the deadline has long been clear, and the meaning of “amply fund” has long been clear. Until the State enacts measures that fully implement its program of basic education by the September 1, 2018 deadline, it remains out of compliance.” p. 2
Role of court and legislature – “This court in retaining jurisdiction has not purported to take over public education. Rather, the court is fulfilling its constitutional obligation as a member of the judicial branch of the state to determine whether the legislative branch, which controls the State’s purse strings, is complying with its positive constitutional duty to make ample provision for the basic education of all children in the state; it must order compliance if it finds the legislature is falling short. The court has consistently emphasized its deference to the legislature as to the proper means by which to fulfill the State’s constitutional duty, and it has refused to dictate specific guidelines for components of the basic education system.” p. 21 (citations omitted)
State funding formulas for schools are constitutional – “[T]he court generally agrees with the State as to the framework of the prototypical school model and what the State must do to fulfill its constitutional duty. ESHB 2261 [the “basic education” statute] is not designed to dictate reimbursements to school districts for their actual expenditures on the components of basic education. Rather, the prototypical school is a prospective allocation model encompassing evidence-based formulas that take account of the actual costs of supporting the program of basic education. It is designed to calculate the amount of state funding necessary to provide for the program of basic education while maintaining the ability of individual school districts to decide how best to spend the allocations to meet local needs.“pp. 26-27
“This court has never held that to meet its constitutional obligation, the State must precisely account for every school district’s actual expenditures in providing basic education.” p. 28
Basic education fully funded – “In sum, with respect to the components of basic education addressed above, the State has satisfied the court’s mandate to fully fund the program of basic education established by ESHB 2261 in accordance with the formulas and benchmarks set forth in SHB 2276 and this court’s orders. The legislature’s actions as to these components are not perfect, but the legislature has acted within the broad range of its policy discretion in a manner that ‘achieves or is reasonably likely to achieve’ the constitutional end of amply funding K-12 basic education. At this point, the court is willing to allow the State’s program to operate and let experience be the judge of whether it proves adequate.” p. 37 (citations omitted).
Teacher/staff salaries fully funded – “The court is satisfied that the new salary model established by EHB 2242 [the new education funding law] provides for full state funding of basic education salaries sufficient to recruit and retain competent teachers, administrators, and staff. This is consistent with the standards established for constitutional compliance.” p. 40
State missed deadline to fund plan by one year – “The program of basic education cannot be said to be ‘fully implemented” by September 1, 2018, when it puts off full funding of basic education salaries until the 2019-20 school year. If compliance by 2019-20 is close enough, why not 2020-21 or the following year? Further, the argument that the current legislation establishes the steps that will automatically result in full funding of salaries by the 2019-20 school year is undermined by the State’s acknowledgment that funding for that year will depend on the legislature making the necessary appropriation in the 2019-21 biennial budget. However confident the court may be that the legislature will fulfill its duty to make the appropriation, a program that depends on action being taken in 2019 is necessarily not ‘fully implemented’ by September 1, 2018.” p. 42
State should have met the Court-imposed deadline – “The opportunity to take timely action did not suddenly present itself in the 2017 legislative session. The court is not insensitive to the political considerations and compromises that necessarily characterize the legislative process, but there is the political question and there is the constitutional question. It is the court’s responsibility to give meaning to constitutional rights and ensure the State complies with its constitutional duties, particularly its paramount duty to amply fund K-12 public education.” p. 43
Court will keep jurisdiction until plan is fully implemented – “As things stand today, the salary allocation model . . . complies with the State’s obligation to fully fund K-12 basic education salaries, but it will not be implemented by September 1, 2018. The State thus remains out of full compliance with its constitutional duty under article IX, section 1. Accordingly, the court will retain jurisdiction to ensure full constitutional compliance by the established deadline, and it will maintain the sanction of $100,000 per day’ with the expectation that the State will enact measures to achieve full compliance during the regular 2018 legislative session.” pp 43-44 (citations omitted)