Near the end of Tuesday’s proceedings on the trial over education funding, Judge John Erlick asked a side question to Mary Jean Ryan, chair of the Washington State Board of Education. The judge wondered if the board’s symbol, an Aladdin-like lantern, held any special meaning. The query brought a rare moment of levity for Ryan, who testified for the entire day. She didn’t know about any meaning, she replied, though she has “thought about when the genie gets out of the bottle.”

Left unspoken was whose wish the genie would grant. The opposing sides in the trial, which has reached the approximate halfway point on Day 13, attempted to show either that the State has failed to amply fund K-12 education or that no court intervention is required.

Ryan made the case for both sides, with caveats. She said that “increased investment in K-12 is warranted…because we believe we’ll get a better return.” But how the money is spent is equally critical, she said. Ryan said the State would show good stewardship of public funds by covering the real cost of K-12 education “as well as (having) a higher-performing system. We need to hold ourselves accountable to the people of Washington.”

Asked by NEWS lead attorney Tom Ahearne if student achievement could be improved without additional funding, Ryan said, “We can improve…without additional investment. We see it all the time.” But when Ahearne followed up by asking if the achievement gap could be closed without more funds, her reply differed. “I think not,” she said, noting that WASL scores and dropout rates have flattened. “We’re going to need to invest in additional instruction time. Kids start school at different starting points,” she said. “(To think otherwise) defies logic. We’ll need considerable investment in math, science, teaching talent, aligned curriculum, more instruction time.”

Later, Senior Assistant Attorney General Carrie Bashaw asked Ryan what would happen if the State increased education funding without the reforms outlined in HB 2261, the new law that seeks to redefine basic education and change the school funding formula in Washington. Answering that is difficult, Ryan said, because of Washington’s decentralized education system and 296 school districts. “Some would take the money and do very good things with it,” she said, while others would “continue practices less effective.”

Ryan said HB 2261 “starts us down the road” to accountability by requiring the State to take action against chronically under-performing districts, ordering them to put improvement plans into place. Without reforms, she said, dramatic results would not be seen by “simply pouring more money into districts historically under-performing.” In response to questions from the State, Ryan said many school district administrators oppose State intervention because of a long history of local control, and she said the Washington Education Association opposes it because of concerns about potential changes to collective bargaining agreements.

HB 2261 also includes Core 24, the State Board of Education’s proposal to increase the number of high school credits needed to graduate from 19 to 24. The additional credits would allow graduates to meet the minimum entrance requirements at Washington’s four-year public colleges and universities. Currently, many high school graduates have to enroll in remedial courses at higher education institutions. Critics of Core 24 include school districts with tapped out levies that are struggling to keep up with what the State already requires them to do. “We hear, ‘Please please please – no unfunded mandates,’ ” Ryan said.

While great quality of teaching should lead to great learning, that doesn’t occur for every child, Ryan said later. “We can’t guarantee that (all) students will avail themselves. The human variable… we can’t control.”

In response to questions from Ahearne, Ryan said the State has never provided enough funding to meet the intent of HB 1209 – the education reform bill of 1993 that laid out the minimum knowledge and skills needed by every Washington child – “but we have funded what we call basic education.” She advocated for HB 2261’s new definition of basic education that includes Core 24 and more accountability, among other reforms.

As her testimony neared the end, Judge Erlick asked Ryan about the State’s constitutional duty to amply provide an education for all children. Is compliance shown by inputs — money — or by outcomes – achievement? “You have to do both,” Ryan replied, by looking at a district’s total costs and needs, both academic and nonacademic.

If HB 2261 was “fully implemented and funded,” the judge asked, “would the State be meeting its constitutional mandate” to amply provide for the education of all children? “I think it would,” said Ryan, reiterating that the legislation is “not just about money” but also about reforms with phased-in timelines. The bill passed with no funding and some portions do not have to be implemented until 2018.

Ryan’s final questions came from Ahearne, who asked if full implementation of HB 2261 meant that the law produced the results she intended, and that it did not cut funding for staff or non-employee related costs. She replied yes to both questions.

Coming up on Wednesday: Eric Hanushek, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, will testify. Edmonds School District Superintendent Nick Brossoit also is expected to testify.

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