South Whidbey officials worried that state Supreme Court decision won't immediately help schools

The Washington State Supreme Court ruled today that the state is failing its duty to properly fund basic education.

The court, however, failed to say how the Legislature should fix the problem, and that's left leaders with South Whidbey School District in a wait-and-see mode.

“It’s good news, there’s just no definition as to what that 'good news' means,” said South Whidbey School District Superintendent Jo Moccia.

“It’s good news that we’re actually going to follow through on the decision to fund schools. We’re supposed to be fully funded by 2018; it’ll be a nice change.

"I don’t know how the state’s going to meet its obligation, but I’m looking forward to them trying,” she said.

After almost two years, the court decided in favor of two families that challenged the state's support of kindergarten through 12th-grade education. The state Constitution says the state has a "paramount" duty to provide an education to children, but school officials, elected leaders and others have long alleged that Washington state was short-changing students and their families.

The debate over state support of schools is more than academic on South Whidbey.

For six years, South Whidbey School District has made staff and faculty cuts in response to declining enrollment and falling state funding. Thursday's decision, however, didn't appear to be a light at the end of the tunnel for local officials.

“I’m just not that optimistic that we’re going to see anything in the short term,” said School Board Chairman Steve Scoles. “We’re not holding our breath for more funding, we’re bracing for more cuts.”

The ruling gives a target year of 2018 for education to be adequately funded. What happens until then is still a mystery, officials said.

“I don’t know how it’s going to affect South Whidbey, because we don’t know what it’s going to mean in terms of dollars,” Moccia said. “2018 is a long time away. The indication is that it has to be fully funded by that time. It’s better than the alternative, which is not upholding it.”

“I’m not speculating at all in terms of what dollars we’re going to get," she added. "There’s always the hope that we’re going to get more than we got in the current year.”

Scoles was also doubtful that the impact would be immediate, adding that the state is relying more and more on local money to make up for the shortfalls that have stemmed from the state's ongoing budget woes.

“In the meantime, we’re going backwards," Scoles said. "Over the past year or so, the Legislature has allowed our local funding to go from 24 percent to 28 percent, which is our maintenance and operations levy. They’re basically shifting more responsibility to the local taxpayers.”

Gov. Christine Gregoire proposed two ideas to fund education that have gained some traction within South Whidbey’s educational leadership.

One solution was to increase the sales tax by a half-cent. The other was to reduce the school year by one week (five school days).

Other possible alterations to what's defined as "basic education" are also on the table.

“There’s still a variety of things that can happen to change the definition of basic education," Moccia explained.

"Will it stay 180 days? Will it stay 19 credits?”

The Washington State Supreme Court decision on the case, McCleary v. State, was highly anticipated.

The Supreme Court acknowledged that it had last reviewed a legal challenge to the state's funding of schools more than 30 years ago in a lawsuit involving the Seattle School District, and that earlier decision was crucial to the court's view that it must retain a role in the case as the Legislature determines how it will fund basic education.

Public education is still underfunded, despite decades of studies, reforms and the infusion of increased funding from local and federal sources.

The justices said Washington state "has failed to meet its duty … by consistently providing school districts with a level of resources that falls short of the actual costs of the basic education program."

And though the Supreme Court noted that state lawmakers had recently passed "sweeping reforms to remedy the deficiencies in the funding system" and was making progress, the court would continue to retain jurisdiction to guarantee that progress would continue.

"What we have learned from experience is that this court cannot stand on the sidelines and hope the state meets its constitutional mandate to amply fund education," the decision said. "[Washington State Constitution] Article IX, Section 1 is a mandate, not to a single branch of government, but to the entire state. We will not abdicate our judicial role."

Two justices — Barbara A. Madsen and James M. Johnson — agreed with the decision, but dissented in part.

Madsen wrote the ruling was "largely symbolic," and said the judiciary should not retain jurisdiction in the case because the court had not provided benchmarks or defined desired outcomes that could be used to measure the progress that must be made.

"Without clear, identified goals, judicial supervision will be unhelpful, can assure no compliance, and, at worst, will be obstructive," Madsen wrote.

Instead, the court should use "judicial restraint" and allow the Legislature to do its job without reporting "to the judiciary at every step," she wrote.

In a statement to the press, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn said the ruling was "a clear victory for the students of Washington state."

"The ruling confirms what I have been saying for many years: education funding has not been adequate, and further cuts are out of the question," Dorn said.

"I am also glad that the court will continue to monitor the case and I stand ready to help the Legislature identify the elements of basic education that remain underfunded or inappropriately funded," he added. "Finally, I want to thank the court for issuing its ruling before the start of the 2012 Legislature. The court understood that the issue of education funding is too important to Washington state to have waited until the end of another session."


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