The state of Washington isn't fully paying for basic public education, a violation of its constitutional duty, a King County judge ruled Thursday in a lawsuit brought by a coalition of parents, teachers and school districts, which included the Olympia School District and the Olympia Education Association.
The decision from Superior Court Judge John Erlick came after nearly two months of testimony. School districts, community leaders and others participating in the suit said the state was leaving school districts to rely on local levies, donations and PTA fundraisers to educate students.
The state disagreed, saying it does meet its constitutional duty.
The judge didn’t set a specific timeline for reform but urged the Legislature to proceed with real and measurable progress to establish the cost of basic education and find a stable way to pay for it.
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The Legislature has committed to reform the way it pays for basic education by 2018.
“We literally have studied this issue to death,” said state Rep. Skip Priest, R-Federal Way, a legislative reform leader who testified during the trial. “The fact is the constitution doesn’t give us credit for studies. It gives us credit for action.”
David Johnston, president of the Olympia Education Association, said he was proud that Olympia teachers and the Olympia school administration chose to join the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools, the coalition that brought the suit forward.
“That ruling reflects what we have been saying, that education funding has been inadequate,” he said. “While the Olympia district voters have been supportive of us, the levies are increasingly paying for what should be basic education. That’s a system that just can’t continue.”
“Being part of the coalition was a way to express in a public way to the state and the courts that we have a belief that funding for schools is inadequate,” said Peter Rex, spokesman for the Olympia School District. “We expect that the benefit will be to all schools in the entire state. Right now, this is great news for Washington state.”
Erlick acknowledged the state’s efforts at reforming the way it pays for education and encouraged lawmakers to continue that. But he said he based his decision on a state Supreme Court ruling from 30 years ago that found the state must amply provide for basic education. Relying so heavily on local levies fails that standard, he said.
The state doesn’t provide enough money to give every child a chance to meet the state’s essential learning requirements, the judge said. Instead, the state depends on funding formulas that don’t correlate with the actual cost to teach its 1 million children, he wrote.
“The court is left with no doubt that under the State’s current financing system the State is failing in its constitutional duty to make ample provision for the education of all children,” the judge wrote in his decision. “This court is convinced that basic education is not being funded by a stable and dependable source of funds provided by the state.”
Thomas Ahearne, an attorney representing the coalition, said he was particularly pleased the judge agreed with his team’s main arguments. There wasn’t a single detail from the ruling that was troubling, he said.
The chair of the coalition that brought the lawsuit was pleased with the decision and agreed that too much local money is being used to pay for education.
“That’s unstable and unpredictable and unreliable,” said Mike Blair, who is also superintendent of tiny Chimacum School Districts, which educates just over 1,000 students on the Olympic Peninsula.
A lawyer for the state said he expected both sides would find something to appeal in Erlick’s decision. Assistant Attorney General Bill Clark emphasized, however, that the decision whether to appeal would be made by the attorney general, the governor and the Legislature.
One of the leaders of the Legislature’s reform efforts said he didn’t think the state should waste its money appealing Erlick’s decision.
“It lights a much-needed fire under legislators to put education funding first,” said state Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, a former lawmaker, agreed.
“For more than 30 years we’ve been heading down this road, and the time for action is now,” he said.
Clark said he wasn’t disappointed in all of Erlick’s ruling. He was happy the judge acknowledged the reform work already being done in the Legislature.
“We’re happy that he’s letting that process continue,” Clark said.
Gov. Chris Gregoire said she hoped the judge’s decision would encourage lawmakers to approve the education reform bills before the Legislature this session. Improving education quality remains the state’s top priority, she said.
Staff writer Venice Buhain contributed to this report.