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Fight for fair school funding far from over

Post by Kim Bradford on Nov. 14, 2009 at 5:42 pm |
November 14, 2009 1:43 pm

This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.

Few things speak as emphatically as a 9-0 decision from the Washington State Supreme Court.

On Thursday, the justices not known for going along to get along spoke in unison. A unanimous court ruled that variations in the way the state allocates money for school personnel do not violate the state constitution.

No dissents. No concurring opinions that highlighted differences in members’ legal analysis of the issue. No legal recourse beyond the state’s highest court. This decision is as definitive as they come.

Federal Way schools, which brought the lawsuit and had reason to be optimistic about its chances, will now have to depend on state lawmakers to finally right this old wrong.

The district has long alleged that historical funding disparities are inconsistent with the Legislature’s constitutional charge to “provide for a general and uniform system of public schools.”

That argument convinced a King County Superior Court judge two years ago, but not the Supreme Court. Justice Jim Johnson, writing for the court last week, rejected the district’s “implicit assumption the unequal funding formulas result in disparate educational quality.”

It apparently didn’t help matters that the Federal Way district – which receives the lowest level of state funding for teachers, staff and administrators – is still able to post above-average test scores.

Also weighing heavily against the district was the court’s finding that while funding disparities remain, they have shrunk considerably since 30 years ago, when the Legislature adopted the salary schedule it continues to use to figure district allocations.

But $7 million – the difference between what Federal Way now receives and what it would if it were at the top of the range – is still not chump change. Money may not buy learning per se, but it certainly goes a long way toward supplying the prerequisites.

The Supreme Court has said the Legislature can continue to assume it costs one thing to hire a teacher in Puyallup and something less in Federal Way. The question is, why would lawmakers choose to?

The state’s archaic system may pass constitutional muster, but that makes it no more defensible in the court of common sense.
The Legislature knows that the current scheme is out of whack, or it wouldn’t have made halting attempts to fix it over the last three decades.

Lawmakers should finish the job.

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