Judith Billings remembered the euphoria felt by educators in 1978 when the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the State had failed to comply with its constitutional duty to amply provide for the education of all children. “We were cheering,” said Billings, then a teacher in the Puyallup School District, and later the state Superintendent of Public Instruction. “We finally had the hammer. We were going to get funding. It was euphoric – for a very short time.”
The problem, Billings testified in Day 4 of the suit against the State filed by the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools, was that what the State called “full funding” of education failed to cover the actual costs. “Our jobs as teachers depended on (passage of local levies),” she said. “If the levy did not pass, we didn’t have jobs.”
Billings appeared as a fact witness for NEWS as the scheduled six-week trial finished its first week. Under questioning by NEWS attorney Edmund Robb, she read portions of State of the State addresses by four former Washington governors, all of whom stressed the importance of adequate education funding.
Gov. Dan Evans, in his 1977 address, said the issue of education funding was “a ticking time bomb that may soon explode… Now it’s important to provide adequate long-term funding… instead of spending inordinate time on passing special levies.” But over the decades, Billings said, full funding for education was “the change that we did not see.”
Earlier Thursday, Colville School District Superintendent Ken Emmil concluded his second day of testimony. He told of difficulties in passing levies and bonds in his district north of Spokane because of pervasive anti-tax sentiment. “When my district runs a levy, it’s civil war,” Emmil said. Levy failures mean the district must make cuts because State support is inadequate, he said.
NEWS lead attorney Tom Ahearne asked Emmil if the State’s basic allocation to Colville of $12.7 million, or the $19.4 million it receives from all sources, including federal and temporary State money and local levies, allows the district to provide all children with the knowledge and skills to meet State standards.
No, said Emmil, later adding that HB 2261 – a bill passed this year to redefine basic education and change the funding formula – was simply “more rhetoric, more studies that puts off taking care of business.”
Carrie Bashaw, Senior Assistant State Attorney General, noted that Colville High School was awarded a “bronze medal” by U.S. News and World Report in the magazine’s rankings of “best high schools.” She also pointed out positive mentions of Colville schools, one on the district’s elementary school Web page and another in a brochure by the Colville Chamber of Commerce.
Emmil downplayed the endorsements and said the elementary school is “as fantastic as (the principal) can make it with the resources he has.” The Chamber of Commerce’s praise of Colville schools – the brochure said the district’s test scores are “well above the state average” – also was unacceptable to Emmil because not all children were learning.
Emmil reiterated to Judge Erlick the importance of resources to Colville – athletic programs, shop class supplies, replacements for 1950s-era microscopes – as well as the importance of making a connection to struggling students whose families might not value education.
Judge Erlick told Emmil that much of the case is about State education standards and learning requirements. “The goals may seem a little amorphous,” the judge said. “It’s my job to figure out what the goals are. But I sit up here in a theoretical, abstract position. You’re the practitioner…You brought a slice of real life into my courtroom.”
When Judge Erlick asked Emmil why his district received outside recognition, the superintendent said he was “amazed” that some people would applaud Colville’s 87 percent graduation rate. The 13 percent who do not graduate represent “a horrible failure,” he said. As for being a “bronze medalist,” Emmil said, “that’s third place. I hate to tell you, but that’s not OK. (Even) 1 percent of kids not graduating is not OK.”
Coming up after the Labor Day weekend on Tuesday: Former State School Superintendent Judith Billings will resume her testimony.