I voted against the compromise budget this year for the first time in my career because I felt, in spite of the many good things that were done, that the failure to deliver a plan for full educational funding would lead to something like what happened today. The supreme court, in an unsurprising decision (if you were paying attention to this year's budget deal) levied a fine of $100,000 per day against the state for failing to deliver a court ordered “plan” to meet constitutional educational funding requirements.
The court says that legislature has made decent progress on fully funding student transportation, covering operating costs like textbooks and technology, and expanding all-day kindergarten to every student in the state. And it also recognized that the legislature has put more money into reducing class size in grades K through 3. But it also indicated that the amount invested was not going to be enough to get to an average class size of 17 in the early grades by 2018. Concurrently, the court held, and Republicans would say expanded, the definition of basic education to include funding for classroom and school buildings to accommodate the lower class sizes they call for. They did this by holding that the $200 million additional investment made in this last capital budget was not enough for classroom construction. They are right on that score.
Finally, the court again stated that it is the state—not local districts—that must fully fund salaries of teachers and educational administrators, though the Court seemed to back off of the position that solving the levy problem is required. It simply stated that the Legislature must increase it’s payment of those salaries in order “to attract and retain” qualified teachers. Interestingly, the Court said nothing about the decision to delay to implementation and funding of Initiative 1351.
Where does this leave us? First, the decision makes it crystal clear that the additional investment required to meet the construction, compensation and class size reduction is needed. One bipartisan bill estimated the cost of salary reform at $3.5 billion. The Court pointed to the Joint Task Force on Education Funding report from 2012 to indicate that the class size funding in the current budget was at least $600 million short of where we need to be at the end of 2018. Moreover, these figures do not include funding for more classroom and school construction which will likely cost, at least, hundreds of millions, if not over a billion more.
When you put these few areas alone, together, it becomes clear that in the aggregate we are not talking millions, or even hundreds of millions in additional education funding. We are talking billions. And the Court is saying that its ongoing jurisdiction requires a plan from the legislature to show how it intends to get these billions into the system.
Now, I know some are saying the Court is “way out of its lane” in this order. Other epithets (“pound sand”) and threats have been levied like eliminating judges (figuratively, not literally!) and impeachment. I’ll just say this: We have a state constitution that says the paramount duty is ample education funding. Our Supreme Court (elected state-wide and not appointed) has the role in our system of co-equal branches of government to determine when something meets constitutional standards and when it doesn’t.
The Courts, for example, already told us that constitutional rights were being violated with lack of mental health funding and treatment in our jails. To remedy that, the last budget came up with hundreds of millions. We didn’t blanch at the judicial branch driving a policy and spending outcome to meet constitutional standards in mental health. So what is different about this? The only difference I’ll submit is the scale. It is harder—much harder. Like half the State budget harder.
So friends, your government has some choices. The government can solve this by extensive budget cuts that might include rolling back great investments like lowering college costs and early learning. Or finally, once and for all, we can figure out a structural change to our education financing system which, in my opinion, means creating a better and fairer tax code. Whatever one thinks about the McCleary decision today, the choices have been laid bare for all to see.
David Frockt is a State Senator from the 46th Legislative District representing North Seattle, Lake Forest Park and Kenmore.