The Washington Policy Center recently released a policy note regarding State Supt. Randy Dorn’s proposal on how to fund basic education shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the issues surrounding McCleary v. State of Washington. The writer, Liv Finne, appears to believe that the Supreme Court has ordered the Washington state Legislature to reform our state’s program of basic education.
The Supreme Court has done no such thing.
At its core, McCleary is about basic education funding. The Court’s main points are:
- Using levies to pay for basic education is unconstitutional, and
- The state must fund the educational program already in law via HB 2261.
Ms. Finne misreads what’s at stake in McCleary in two ways. First, she observes that total education funding is currently the highest in state history. Even if that were true, it’s beside the point: McCleary reaffirmed that it’s the state’s responsibility—not local school districts’, and not other sources—to fund K-12 education from regular and dependable tax sources. Put simply, the state must define a statewide program of basic education, and it must pay for it from state revenue.
Second, Ms. Finne has cherry-picked language from the Supreme Court’s primary opinion in McCleary to support her political argument that the Legislature must reform the State’s program of basic education before increasing state funding. She writes:
Superintendent Dorn says his tax increase is necessary for the state to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision in McCleary, yet this view shows a selective understanding of what the decision says. In the decision the judges clearly said that simply adding more money to the current unreformed system is not enough to comply with the court’s ruling.
“Fundamental reforms are needed for Washington to meet its constitutional obligation to its students. Pouring more money into an outmoded system will not succeed.”
Ms. Finne has taken this quote from the original McCleary decision out of context. The quote, found on Page 69, occurs at the end of the court’s analysis of the case. The preceding paragraph, though, clearly states that its analysis is focused on funding (emphasis added):
After extensive review over many years, state task forces and committees have concluded that the K-12 funding system is broken. The legislature itself abandoned its longtime funding model effective September 1, 2011. Following an eight-week bench trial, the trial court concluded that the State has failed to meet its constitutional obligations. Substantial evidence confirms that the State’s funding system neither achieved nor was reasonably likely to achieve the constitutionally prescribed ends under article IX, section 1. We affirm the trial court’s declaratory ruling and hold that the State has not complied with its article IX, section 1 duty to make ample provision for the education of all children in Washington.
We do not believe this conclusion comes as a surprise. Rather, the evidence in this case confirms what many educational experts and observers have long recognized: fundamental reforms are needed for Washington to meets its constitutional obligation to its students. Pouring more money into an outmoded system will not succeed.
The “system” the court is referring to is the funding system. The constitutional obligation at issue in McCleary is to provide ample and uniform funding. The reforms the court describes are funding reforms – namely, ending the reliance on local levies.
We simply cannot continue to rely on local school levies to finance our state’s K-12 education system. That’s why Supt. Dorn supports funding reform, and why he proposed a revenue bill.
The Supreme Court did not mandate that the Legislature reform how we evaluate teachers, or that we create charter schools, or grade schools A to F, or give principals the ability to overrule personnel decisions made by superintendents, or change any other substantive area of the state’s program of basic education. It did mandate that the Legislature finally live up to its constitutional obligation to fully fund the system of education the Legislature itself has enacted.
Supt. Dorn suggested raising the sales tax because it is the one obvious revenue source available to the State of Washington. He would certainly welcome a better, more creative funding source than the sales tax. But to this point, he hasn’t seen a credible plan that will satisfy the Supreme Court.
“Reform before revenue” is a catchy slogan. But it is not an accurate statement of the situation currently facing the Legislature, and it should not be used as an excuse to avoid the hard questions surrounding education funding.