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Originally published January 5, 2012 at 9:13 AM | Page modified January 6, 2012 at 8:33 AM

Court ruling won't protect schools from new cuts

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle made clear that when the Legislature convenes Monday to address a $1.5 billion budget shortfall, education cuts will still be on the table, despite a ruling Thursday by the state Supreme Court that the state is failing to meet its constitutional duty to provide a basic public education to all children in Washington.

Seattle Times staff reporters

Majority court ruling

Dissent

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A state Supreme Court decision issued Thursday sent a signal to lawmakers about the importance of funding public education but is unlikely to protect that area from further cuts — at least not in the short term.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle made clear that when the Legislature convenes Monday to address a $1.5 billion budget shortfall, education cuts will still be on the table, despite a highly anticipated ruling that the government is failing to meet its constitutional duty to provide a basic education to all the state's children.

The 7-2 decision told lawmakers the court would track progress on the issue but left it to them to figure out where to get the money. The ruling, on a lawsuit brought by a coalition of school districts, parents, teachers and community groups, backed legislation already on the books that gives the state until 2018 to fund education fully.

"The judiciary will retain jurisdiction over the case to help ensure progress in the State's plan to fully implement education reforms by 2018," Justice Debra Stephens wrote in the majority opinion. "This court intends to remain vigilant in fulfilling the State's constitutional responsibility."

Two justices dissented, arguing the courts should end the case and trust the Legislature to do its job.

Officials dissecting the 85-page opinion said it would influence government policy, but they weren't quite sure how. While some lawmakers hoped the ruling would lead to a reluctance to cut education funding, others said it's unlikely to provide an instant shield.

Lawmakers will gather in Olympia on Monday for a 60-day session to address the shortfall, caused in part by a recession that has depleted tax revenues.

Lawmakers are considering deep cuts to state programs, including hundreds of millions of dollars in potential education cuts such as shortening the school year by a week.

However, Gov. Chris Gregoire and other Democrats support asking voters for a tax increase this year to reduce further cuts to education and certain other programs.

A voter-passed initiative requires explicit voter approval or two-thirds support in the Legislature for all tax hikes.

State Rep. Reuven Carlyle, vice chairman of the higher-education committee, called the court ruling a powerful signal and said he would fight against education cuts. But he could not take them off the table completely.

"We cannot simply put a check mark next to one category and walk away," said Carlyle, D-Seattle. "It is simply not possible to balance the budget without courageously putting all spending on the table."

Protecting education funding at the expense of other programs would be devastating to the social safety net, said Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle.

Murray, chairman of the Senate Ways & Means Committee, pointed out that even if education funding hadn't been cut this year or last, the state still would be $6 billion to $9 billion under the minimum amount needed to provide full funding for education.

"I don't know where that money would come from," he said. "I don't know that there are $6 [billion] to $9 billion in the budget, unless you wanted to maybe close down some community colleges and maybe stop meeting our pension obligations and things like that."

Instead, the Legislature will work to gradually increase education funding over the next six years, officials said.

"I think there is great relief to the Legislature that the court recognizes that we need time to do this," said state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle. "The fire is lit under the feet of the Legislature to continue to make progress."

Santos, Murray, Carlyle and other Democrats said the ruling made it clear that the state needs to increase taxes to fund existing state programs. Gregoire used it as an opportunity to push her temporary half-cent sales-tax proposal.

Republicans, on the other hand, said the decision should be taken as an indication that the Legislature needs to rethink how it funds education. Senate Minority Whip Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, said lawmakers should focus on reducing regulation and state control of local school districts.

While officials debated the implications of the ruling, one woman spent the day celebrating. Stephanie McCleary, the case's namesake, said hearing about the high court's decision felt surreal.

"As the day goes on, it gets more and more exciting," McCleary said. "It was worth going through."

McCleary filed the lawsuit in 2007 on behalf of her two children, Kelsey and Carter, who were students in the 1,100-student Chimacum School District in Jefferson County. She was joined in the filing by another family and a coalition of school districts, union and community-based organizations that called itself the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools (NEWS).

Pointing to an increasing reliance on local levies to fund school districts, the coalition argued the state was not fulfilling what the constitution calls its "paramount duty" to make "ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders."

That's one of the strongest — if not the strongest — constitutional provisions regarding education in the country.

It's also a section that has been hotly debated since at least 1978, when the Washington Supreme Court originally ordered the state to define and fund a basic education for all students. Lawmakers since then have conducted several studies and come up with a definition but have not moved as fast on the funding as some education advocates would have liked.

McCleary, who was not involved in the 1978 case, turned 13 that year.

"It's disappointing that it's taken this much of an effort to get legislators to comply with the constitution, but we can only hope that from this point forward they can all see that this is the priority," she said.

Last February, King County Superior Court Judge John Erlick agreed with McCleary and the coalition. But the state appealed Erlick's decision, sending the issue to the high court, which heard arguments in June.

Tom Ahearne, the attorney who represented the coalition, called the Supreme Court ruling "about the best decision I could possibly imagine."

He said he interpreted the ruling to mean any future cuts to education programs must come for education reasons, not financial ones.

Seattle education advocates were equally excited.

"I think it sends a strong message to policymakers that they're going to have to find another way to balance the budget," said Lisa Macfarlane, founder of the League of Education Voters. "They are going to have a tough time cutting funding for K-12, given the fact that the court just ruled that the current system isn't meeting its obligation."

Seattle teachers-union President Olga Addae also was ecstatic. Asked for a comment, she responded with one word: "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."

Others were more cautious.

Lauren McGuire, the president of the Seattle Council PTSA, noted that while the decision eventually may move the state in the right direction, it will not help many students now in school.

"It's difficult for those kids who are in school between now and the next six years," said McGuire, referencing the 2018 deadline. "Six years is a long time to wait in the life of a child."

Seattle School Board President Michael DeBell said he, too, is taking a wait-and-see approach.

The ruling will not change the board's budget process this year, he said. Seattle Public Schools expects to cut some $25 million this year from its budget because of the state funding situation.

But, DeBell said, "this gives us some hope."

Brian M. Rosenthal:

206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com

On Twitter @brianmrosenthal

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