The long-awaited trial over education funding in Washington got underway Monday with attorneys for the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools making a straightforward case: The State has consistently failed to comply with its constitutional mandate to amply fund education for all children. The State has produced “over 30 years of good intentions” without fulfilling its duty, leaving school districts scrambling to fund operations and too many students failing to meet academic standards in basic subjects, said Tom Ahearne, lead attorney for NEWS.

During the past three decades, the State did little “except studying and promising,” he told King County Superior Court Judge John Erlick in his opening statements.

The suit was brought as “a last resort by a group of folks who were very frustrated by the lack of resources for all our children to gain the knowledge and skills to participate in a democratic society,” testified NEWS President Mike Blair, superintendent of the Chimacum School District near Port Townsend. He was the first of 64 witnesses expected to be called during the scheduled six-week trial.

NEWS represents a statewide coalition of 31 school districts with nearly 400,000 students, along with the 78,000-member Washington Education Association and 31 of its local affiliates. The Washington State PTA, League of Women Voters of Washington and several advocacy groups are among other organizations in the more than 70 member coalition.

Ahearne said that Article IX, section 1 of the Washington Constitution plainly states that “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders…” Since the State has failed to fulfill that duty, he said, NEWS wants the judge to declare that three key words — “paramount,” “ample” and “all” — mean precisely what they say and not just “important,” “barely enough” and “most,” respectively.

NEWS also wants Erlick to declare that the basic “education” mandated by the constitution is defined by the State Supreme Court’s ruling in 1978, when the Seattle School District similarly sued the State for failure to comply with Article IX. That ruling noted that the “State’s constitutional duty goes beyond mere reading, writing and arithmetic” and “embraces broad educational opportunities needed…to equip our children for their role as citizens and as potential competitors in today’s market as well as in the market place of ideas.”

Basic education also is defined by the minimum knowledge and skills specified in the 1993 education reform bill (HB 1209), such as reading with comprehension, writing with skill and communicating with effectiveness, Ahearne said. In addition, the State’s definition includes Washington’s nine Essential Academic Learning Requirements, which “define what all students should know and be able to do,” such as reading, math, science and writing, he said.

“Is the State satisfying its paramount duty (to amply fund education for all children)? The evidence will show that the answer is no,” Ahearne said. He described funding disparities in the Chimacum, Colville, Yakima and Edmonds school districts, where the State’s basic education allocation covered only one-half to two-thirds of what the schools were spending to operate the schools. The districts had to pass local levies to provide the bulk of the remaining funding, with federal money and temporary state allocations accounting for the rest.

And still, those resources were insufficient to provide a basic education for all students. In those four districts, the majority of tenth-graders failed the science portion of the WASL and did nearly as poorly in math, mirroring the statewide results.

NEWS wants Erlick to declare that the State is not currently complying with its constitutional mandate to amply provide for the education of all children. The coalition also wants the judge to order the State to establish both the actual cost of compliance and the means for how to fund that cost.

Though the State will argue that HB 2261 — a bill passed this year to redefine basic education and change the funding formula — will address those problems by 2018, that is simply more “studying and promises,” Ahearne said.

In his opening statements, Assistant State Attorney General Bill Clark said the NEWS suit was unnecessary because the State had already defined basic education as a result of the 1978 State Supreme Court case. For the State, education is “first in priority” and is protected even in bad economic times, he said, with school districts given “flexibility to raise more (money) than what the state provides” and to spend it as they see fit, within limits.

The four districts cited by Ahearne gave their teachers supplemental pay over and above the amount paid by the State, Clark said.

He said the State has been transitioning to a performance-based system since the passage of the education reform bill and that growth in State funding for education since 1991 has exceeded two commonly used measures of inflation.

There’s been “precious little foot-dragging” by the State, Clark said. “We don’t dispute (that amply providing an education for all children is the) paramount duty. We do dispute the notion that we’ve been doing nothing but twiddling our thumbs for 30 years.”

Testing for the WASL began in 1997, with the science test starting only in 2004, accounting for the low scores, he said.

The prevalence of low scores in certain subjects is “not evidence in and of itself that the state is not providing enough funding,” Clark said.

He portrayed the school financing issue as complicated and said HB 2261 was “a more measured approach for an enhanced funding and accountability system” because it would address concerns about compensation, staffing ratios, non-salary costs, special education, transportation and other costs.

In his testimony, Blair called that legislation “a long overdue first step. But (HB) 2261 is about like putting the carrot in front of the horse. It’s a promise, a 10-year implementation” that neither addresses current needs nor guarantees adequate funding.

“It’s more committees,” he said. “We have enough studies.”

Coming up on Tuesday: When the trial resumes at 9 a.m., Mike Blair will continue to be questioned by NEWS attorneys and then be cross-examined by the State. Also expected to testify is lead plaintiff Stephanie McCleary, a mother of two who lives and works in the Chimacum School District.

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