The State of Washington for decades has refused to comply with its constitutional paramount duty to fully fund education for all students. The time has come for our State’s highest court to step in. “The whole purpose of the judicial branch is to require the other branches to abide by the constitution when they’re not,” Tom Ahearne, lead attorney for the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools, said during a hearing before the Washington Supreme Court on Tuesday, June 28.
He called on the high court to order the State to “determine the actual dollar cost of providing all children a realistic and effective opportunity to learn the essential skills the State itself has said every child should know,” and then to provide stable and dependable resources to fully fund those costs.
The one-hour hearing brought to the State Supreme Court the most significant court action in a generation on behalf of Washington’s public school students. NEWS filed the lawsuit in 2007 asking the courts to order the State to live up to its paramount constitutional duty to make ample provision for the education of all Washington children.
Quoting civil rights leader Roberto Maestas’ trial testimony, “The only way to be free is to be fully educated,” Ahearne emphasized the critical importance of this case.
“There is no vote any of you ever cast, no words you ever write, that will have a more direct and permanent impact on the lives and real freedom of Washington citizens than the vote you cast and the decision you issue in this case,” he said.
Assistant State Attorney General Bill Clark maintained that the State is currently funding 100% of the costs of basic education. He said deep budget cuts in recent legislative sessions reducing teacher salaries, increasing class sizes and eliminating teacher training affect”enhancements” that do not fall under the constitutional definition of basic education.
The trial court verdict in the NEWS lawsuit, which defined basic education as the knowledge and skills embodied in State-mandated academic standards, “has burdened the State with a standard this State cannot possibly meet,” Clark concluded. School districts must instead pass local levies for more funding, he argued.
But the justices noted that all districts can’t pass levies.
Ahearne added that the trial proved that even with the total dollars school districts are able to “cobble together,” the State’s inadequate funding for basic education leaves our public schools without the resources necessary to provide all students a realistic or effective opportunity to learn the State-mandated academic standards.
What’s become known as McCleary v. State was heard in a seven-week trial in King County Superior Court in the fall of 2009. The court issued its ruling in February 2010, holding that NEWS had proven its case on virtually every point and declaring that the State of Washington was in violation of its constitutional mandate. The court ordered the state to determine the actual costs of providing all children with the knowledge and skills set forth in State academic standards and to fully fund that actual cost with stable and dependable State sources.
The State immediately appealed directly to the State Supreme Court. A decision from the Supreme Court is expected to be handed down by the end of this year.
TVW carried the Supreme Court hearing live. You can watch the entire hearing online. Watch the video.
Read more about the trial court ruling.