Vashon educators celebrate high court's landmark ruling

Vashon educators and officials are cheering a strongly worded state Supreme Court decision issued last week that found the Legislature has failed for decades to meet its constitutional mandate to amply fund K-12 education.

The high court's 7-2 decision affirmed a King County Superior judge's February 2010 ruling, agreeing that the Legislature's failure to fund basic education has resulted in an uneven and severely underfunded system of education. Districts don't have enough money to purchase basic supplies and decent text books, pay its teachers and administrators adequately or cover the costs to transport students to and from school, the high court said.

Noting the decades of failure, the Supreme Court added that it will retain jurisdiction over the issue to ensure the state finds a way to mend what it called a "broken" system.

"What we have learned from experience is that this court cannot stand on the sidelines and hope the state meets its constitutional mandate to amply fund education. … We will not abdicate our judicial role," Supreme Court Justice Debra Stephens wrote in the 78-page majority opinion.

"A noted scholar in the area of school-finance litigation has observed that success depends on 'continued vigilance on the part of courts,'" she added. "This court intends to remain vigilant."

Vashon was one of many school districts that signed a letter in support of the lawsuit — McCleary v. State of Washington — that led to last week's high court ruling. Laura Wishik, a school board member and a lawyer who recently argued a case before the state Supreme Court, said she was encouraged by the majority opinion, particularly the fact that the court will retain jurisdiction, a stance she did not expect.

"This is certainly sending a message to the Legislature," Wishik said.

"The opinion is very clear about the ways that the Legislature has failed to fully fund education, and to me that's heartening. It lends credence to what people in the education profession have been saying," she added.

Superintendent Michael Soltman agreed.

"I think it's unlikely that the Supreme Court is going to jail all the legislators," he said. "But it provides such clarity that this state really has to step up and do its constitutional duty. … It's good news for the schools."

Three years ago, the Legislature passed sweeping reform legislation expanding the definition of basic education and calling for other wholesale changes, giving itself a deadline of 2018 to fully implement the new law. In its ruling last week, the high court said the judiciary — the Supreme Court, the trial court or a special master — will monitor implementation of the reforms to ensure lawmakers follow through on the legislation. Currently, it noted, the Legislature is moving at a snail's pace to meet the mandates of the reform law, ESHB 2261. "Timely implementation," Stephens wrote for the majority, "remains uncertain."

The high court's decision comes at a critical time for public education in Washington state, where once again the Legislature is facing a huge budget deficit — due in large part to a long-lasting recession that has meant another shortfall in tax receipts to the state. As lawmakers gather this week, they'll be looking for ways to cut $1.5 billion or more from the state's budget.

On Vashon, the state's financial mess has meant less funding for the 1,500-student district — and last year, teachers and administrators took mandated pay cuts while Islanders scrambled to raise $450,000 in private funds to help close the district's shortfall.

Soltman said he hopes the decision will give lawmakers the incentive they need to hammer out an agreement to raise taxes, the only way, some say, that public education can be adequately funded.

"They keep saying they're in a box. But it seems that consideration of any further cuts (in this legislative session) would be off the table," he said.

But Bob Hennessey and Dan Chasan, two other board members, said they question the real impact of the court's decision in light of the state's ongoing financial crisis. Just how the court will force the Legislature and the governor to act is far from certain, both said.

"There's no sense of how they'll proceed," said Chasan, also a lawyer. "It's better to have the decision than not to have it. But in terms of practical effect, there's certainly no immediate effect."

Hennessey agreed. "I don't want to sound like a killjoy, because the court's decision is important. But the Legislature can't provide schools funding it doesn't have. … We're in a horrible recession. The Legislature has no money. … Without additional revenue, I don't think we'll see anything in the classroom for at least another half decade."

What recourse, he added, does the court have if the state fails to act? "There's no police force for the Washington Supreme Court," he noted.

State Sen. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island) agreed that the Legislature is in a bind, especially in light of an initiative state voters recently passed calling for a supermajority to enact any new taxes.

"People are giving us a lot of input. A lot of them are saying, 'Just institute an income tax.' … But it takes a two-thirds majority to pass any kind of tax reform. We're not going to get to it in this session," she said.

Wishik, however, said the court does have power to force the state to act, should the governor and lawmakers fail to do so. It could hold the governor in contempt or use other measures to force the state to pay money to fund education.

Stephens, in her decision, repeatedly cited the state Constitution, which says it is the state's "paramount duty" to amply fund education.

Noting the significance of the court's interpretation of that line in the Constitution, Wishik added, "There is money. You and I personally might think jails and health care are equally important. But the court has said, 'paramount means first.' Education comes first."


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