Politics & Government

High court hears debate about education funding

Washington Supreme Court justices peppered attorneys with questions about the state’s obligation to pay for public school education and moved the discussion in directions neither side expected during a hearing Tuesday.

A coalition of school districts, parents, teachers and community groups won a lawsuit in King County Superior Court in February 2010. Judge John Erlick ruled the state was violating the state constitution by not fully paying for basic education.

The state appealed, saying Erlick reached beyond the high court’s previous ruling on this issue in 1978.

Many questions from the justices Tuesday concerned whether the Legislature had made any progress lately in improving the way the state pays for basic education.

Assistant Attorney General Bill Clark said lawmakers have made a lot of progress in reform efforts. But coalition attorney Thomas Ahearne said the work of the Legislature has been all talk and studies but no action involving money.

Justice Debra L. Stephens, whose public service includes time on her local school board, asked pointed questions of both lawyers.

She wanted to know how Clark could say that the state has not cut basic education when teacher salaries, training days and other classroom expenses were cut by the 2011 Legislature.

“We don’t concede that those are cuts to basic education,” Clark said.

They spent a lot of time talking about local levies. Clark argued that local school districts use levy money to pay for expenses beyond basic education, for providing enhancements including expenses such as those incurred by football teams.

Ahearne said there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary and that some districts would be forced to close schools without levy dollars. Justice Gerry Alexander kept coming back to this issue, saying too much of the cost of education is paid for by levies. He emphasized that wasn’t fair because for some districts raising local dollars is difficult if not impossible.

Justice Tom Chambers agreed.

“There’s been no progress in that regard,” Chambers said, referring back to the Supreme Court’s 1978 decision on a similar case, when it ordered the Legislature to address the issue of school levies paying too much of the cost of education.