This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
Washington’s schoolchildren won a moral victory and not much else Thursday when the state supreme court ruled that the Legislature has been stiffing public education.
The court was stating the obvious. The Washington Constitution declares that lawmakers’ “paramount duty” is to give “ample provision” to its public schools. If the Legislature were actually doing that, the state’s school boards wouldn’t be turning to local voters every few years, hat in hand, for money to buy textbooks and keep schools from rotting.
Voters will see yet another round of maintenance and operations levy requests on their ballots Feb. 14. Those levies don’t pay for frivolities – they pay for basics the state ought to be paying for instead.
But the high court didn’t solve the problem; it doesn’t have the power to. It cannot rewrite the state budget nor can it order lawmakers to raise taxes for public education. Nor can it order voters to approve those taxes.
Nevertheless, seven of the justices mandated that the Legislature deliver that “ample provision” by 2018. Writing for the majority, Justice Debra Stephens warned that “the court cannot stand idly by as the Legislature makes unfulfilled promises for reform” and that it “intends to remain diligent” and “retain jurisdiction over the case.”
What she didn’t say was how those words would translate into more money. They are more likely to demonstrate the court’s impotence. Chief Justice Barbara Madsen was far more realistic in arguing that the court had spelled out the law and must leave the rest to the lawmakers.
The miserable truth is that the 2012 Legislature will convene this week staring at a $1.4 billion shortfall that will inevitably force some cuts in the K-12 budget. Lawmakers can’t simply strip funding from other essentials – debt service, prisons, child protection, treatment for the mentally ill – to hold schools harmless.
“Paramount duty” doesn’t mean only duty. Children won’t fare well at school if they are going hungry or getting raped at home, or if their parents need psychiatric help they aren’t getting.
Joe Zarelli, the chief Republican budget-writer in the Senate, has come up with a partial but promising solution to the ample-provision problem.
He proposes to cut local levies and raise state property taxes commensurately; the new state money would be sent to the school districts via Olympia. Without wringing more money from state taxpayers, the burden of education funding would thus be shifted from local districts to the state, which is precisely where the burden belongs.
The state money would follow the students on a per capita basis, an arrangement that could greatly alleviate inequalities between property-poor and property-rich school districts – and reduce local contract disputes over levy money in the bargain.
Ultimately, though, the K-12 system must be reformed to the point that voters believe their dollars for education are being spent intelligently. Serious change – not unenforceable judicial bluster – is the only way to guarantee ample provision for Washington’s public schools.