Court rules the State is failing to meet its “paramount duty”; orders Legislature to fully fund the actual cost of educating all children with ample, stable and dependable State funding

In what plaintiffs in a landmark school funding lawsuit called “a huge victory for Washington school children,” a Superior Court judge on Feb. 4, 2010, ruled the State in violation of its constitutionally mandated “paramount duty” to amply provide for the education of all children.

The court ordered the State to determine the actual costs of providing all children with the knowledge and skills set forth in the State’s high academic standards and to fully fund that actual cost with stable and dependable State sources.

“This court is left with no doubt that under the State’s current financing system the State is failing in its constitutional duty,” Judge John Erlick said in his final ruling, which followed a six-week trial that concluded in October. The trial included hundreds of documents and testimony from some 60 witnesses.

The lawsuit was brought by the McCleary family of Jefferson County, the Venema family of Snohomish County and the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools (NEWS), a coalition of more than 75 school districts, statewide civic organizations and community groups, education associations, parents and teachers.

“This decision will have a profound impact on every public school student in Washington – in fact, on every household in the state that depends upon a strong economy and contributing citizens,” said NEWS President Mike Blair. “Today’s decision is a victory for Washington children, families and taxpayers. Everyone in our state will benefit when we finally have a public school system that is funded amply and can provide a world class education to all students.”

Judge Erlick ruled that the word paramount in Article IX, Section 1 of the Constitution, means “preeminent, supreme and more important than all others” and that funding K-12 education is “the State’s first and highest priority before any other State programs or operations.”

He also rejected the State’s contention that House Bill 2261, the education reform measure passed by the 2009 Legislature, was a sufficient response to today’s school funding problems.

The State “cannot avoid the question of whether it is currently complying with its legal duty under Article IX, Section 1 by stating its intent to correct a legal violation sometime in the future.”

During the trial, plaintiffs contended that the State’s current “basic education funding” only barely manages to cover the costs of classroom teaching and teaching materials, requiring local school districts to rely on levies to pay for other necessities such as bus transportation, technology, safety, principals, utilities, new facilities and more. In most school districts, the State’s current basic education funding covers half or less of what it actually costs to operate the public schools.

“State funding is not ample, it is not stable, and it is not dependable,” the court ruling declares. “Local school districts continue to rely on local levies and other non-State resources to supplement state funding for a basic program of education.”

In addition to reconfirming that the State Constitution means exactly what it says – and declaring the State in violation of that standard – the court also established that “basic education” is not whatever funding formula lawmakers might choose to adopt during each legislative session, but the “basic knowledge and skills needed to compete in today’s economy and meaningfully participate in this State’s democracy.”

“This definition will help ensure that school funding is focused on student achievement, not arbitrary calculations based on whatever the Legislature feels like spending on K-12 education from year to year,” said Blair, who is superintendent of the Chimacum School District on the Olympic Peninsula.

The court’s ruling made it clear that the time for delay and stalling is over – calling on the Legislature to “proceed with real and measurable progress” in determining the costs of providing for the education of students and to establish a stable, dependable funding source to pay those costs.

“Now, the Legislature must obey the court’s ruling and fully fund K-12 education,” Blair emphasized. “We urge the Legislature to complete work this session to determine – as ordered by the court – the actual cost of ensuring that all students meet State academic standards and to provide a stable, equitable way to pay those costs.

“We can begin the full-funding process today,” he concluded. “Studies already exist that tell us how much we are underfunding elements of basic education such as student transportation and non-employee related costs like utilities and textbooks. We are losing kids every day we delay.”