Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson recently updated the State Supreme Court in two legal briefs (see here and here) on the State’s progress funding education as part of the Court’s oversight in the long-running McCleary dispute.
Today the State Supreme Court will hear from lawyers on both sides of the case in oral arguments scheduled to last about an hour.
Here are key takeaways from Ferguson’s two updates to the Court:
Massive increases in school funding – Ferguson argues that with passage of three state budgets since 2011, along with a new 2017 law to overhaul how we fund schools and pay teacher salaries, the state has increased education spending by record amounts and has fulfilled its constitutional obligations. From the briefs (emphasis added):
“The Legislature has doubled state K-12 education funding since this Court’s 2012 decision. . .. The massive increase in funding supports numerous policy improvements and fully implements the educational reforms this Court endorsed in 2012.” (July 31st brief, p. 1)
“The legislation enacted in 2017 implements a new system of compensation that allocates state funding to support the full cost of salaries for staff.“ (July 31st brief, pp. 8,9)
“The legislature has increased funding for K-12 education from $13.4 billion in the 2011-13 biennium to $26.6 billion in the 2019-21 biennium – well beyond what enrollment and inflation would have required.” (Sept. 8th brief, p. 1)
State budgets versus local control – Ferguson addresses confusion around repeated claims that some school districts – even with the state’s record investments in education – need more money.
Under Washington law, the state funds education allocating dollars using an agreed-to model (the “proto-typical schools model”). But under our system of local control, it’s up to each school district to figure out how to best spend the allocated dollars. That’s because what works in Spokane may not work in Bellevue, and what students need in Kirkland might be different from students in Pasco.
According to Ferguson, Plaintiffs in McCleary rest their claims on the untenable premise that the State is obligated to reimburse every local expenditure. From the brief:
“Under their [the Plaintiffs] model, the State would be obligated to pay whatever amount of money each of the 295 independent school districts has expended. This is not a model for financial or educational accountability, and it has not been mandated by the Court.” (Sept. 8th brief, pp. 4,5)
Legislature, not courts – Plaintiffs, and more recently other advocacy groups, have argued for the adoption of new and different policies for how we pay for schools. Many of these proposals would require an overhaul of the state’s taxation system (e.g., adoption of a capital gains income tax, closing certain tax preferences, or a state income tax). But as we all learned in Schoolhouse Rock, the legislature – not the courts – is where laws are made – and Ferguson makes this point directly in his brief (emphasis added):
“The State does not in any way discount the value of information received from advocates for education. . .. But no such proposal – even an excellent one advocated in the course of litigation – automatically becomes an element of the State’s program of basic education or establishes a constitutional requirement. . .. Amendments to law should be accomplished by lobbying the legislature, not the Court.” (Sept. 8th brief, p. 35)
State is committed to funding – Although a recent poll showed over half of likely voters had never heard of the McCleary case, passions among those involved run high. At times that’s resulted in needlessly hostile and divisive rhetoric, including Plaintiffs’ attorneys comparing state legislators to segregationists and Nazi propagandists. But any final solution to McCleary necessarily requires trust that the legislature’s commitment to education will continue, as it has since 2012. From the brief (emphasis added):
“The time has come in this case for the Court to trust the commitment made by a co-equal branch of government, a commitment that is accompanied by unprecedented increases in funding for K-12 education over a course of years, and by a history of steadfast adherence to the deadlines committed to. . .. The State is in compliance. No further remedy is necessary. The Court need not retain jurisdiction any longer. It is time for this case to end.” (Sept. 8th brief, p. 42)