In a near-unanimous decision, the Washington State Supreme Court said this morning in the long-running education funding case that the state has not met its constitutionally mandated "paramount duty" to fund basic education. The court ruled that the legislature must find a way to fund K-12 education.

The court did not mandate a specific remedy, though, deferring to the legislature.[pullquote]The State has failed to meet its duty under article IX, section 1 by consistently providing school districts with a level of resources that falls short of the actual costs of the basic education program.[/pullquote]

Noting that the legislature also passed a major ed reform bill in 2009 that redefines and expands basic education, the court charged funding advocates and the staet to recommend ways that the legislature, working with the court, can implement and fund the revamped system by 2018.

The decision begins by affirming the plaintiffs' longstanding bumper-sticker compliant about the state's "paramount duty":
Article IX, section 1 of the Washington State Constitution makes it the paramount duty of the State to amply provide for the education of all children within its borders. This duty requires the State to provide an opportunity for every child to gain the knowledge and skills outlined in Seattle School District, ESHB 1209, and the EALRs. The legislature must develop a basic education program geared toward delivering the constitutionally required education, and it must fully fund that program through regular and dependable tax sources.

The State has failed to meet its duty under article IX, section 1 by consistently providing school districts with a level of resources that falls short of the actual costs of the basic education program. The legislature recently enacted sweeping reforms to remedy the deficiencies in the funding system, and it is currently making progress toward phasing in those reforms. We defer to the legislature's chosen means of discharging its article IX, section 1 duty, but the judiciary will retain jurisdiction over the case to help ensure progress in the State's plan to fully implement education reforms by 2018. We direct the parties to provide further briefing to this court ...

The ruling holds major consequences for the state budget, which currently faces a $1.5 billion shortfall. The legislature has already cut some $2.3 billion from K-12 in the last three years when you count suspension of planned cost-of-living increases for teachers.

The governor’s latest budget proposal cuts another $334 million from K-12, which Democratic House budget chair Rep. Ross Hunter (D-48, Medina), referring to the “paramount duty” clause, has said would be “unconstitutional.”

Gregoire has proposed a half-cent sales tax increase to buy back about $250 million in proposed K-12 cuts.

While the ruling doesn't offer a blueprint, it will surely add weight to legislators who are holding the line on more education cuts this session. This means the math equation in Olympia may get even uglier when it comes to cutting public safety, social services, and environmental programs.

Mary Lindquist, head of the Washington Education Association (the teachers' union), one of the plaintiffs in the ed funding coalition, says the ruling mandates that the legislature fund K-12.

“The decision by the Court, coming just days before the start of the 2012 legislative session," Lindquist says, "clearly puts the responsibility for correcting the underfunding where it belongs: the state legislature. The legislature can no longer punt on full funding for public education.  The legislature needs to act immediately to remedy this injustice against our children and students.”

Gregoire also issued a statement in reaction to today's ruling, taking the opportunity to promote her sales tax increase.
The Court made it clear – the Legislature, and all of us as a state, must provide dependable funding to implement the reforms we have worked so hard to develop. This ruling reinforces my call for a half-penny sales tax increase to invest in education. If we don’t, we take a step backward and not only threaten a violation of the court’s ruling, but make it more difficult for students to gain the skills and knowledge needed to compete in today’s global economy.
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