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Originally published February 4, 2010 at 10:37 AM | Page modified February 4, 2010 at 9:54 PM

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King County judge rules that state isn't providing enough money for schools

A coalition of parents, school districts and teachers won its argument that the state is not providing ample funding for public schools.

Seattle Times education reporter

A coalition of parents, school districts and teachers has won its argument in King County Superior Court that the state is violating the state Constitution by providing too little money for public schools.

Judge John Erlick ruled Thursday morning that he had no doubt that the state is failing in its constitutional duty to fully fund a basic education for the state's schoolchildren. He ordered the state Legislature to establish the actual cost of providing that education, and then to pay for it through stable and dependable sources.

One question mark is how long the Legislature will have to accomplish that.

Attorneys for both sides said they would have to first read the full decision to see if the judge set a deadline. If the judge decided on 2018, the state would be fine with that, said Bill Clark, the assistant attorney general who argued the case. That's the deadline that the Legislature set for itself for carrying out an expanded definition of basic education it approved last year. That's estimated to lead to an extra $1 billion a year for the state's schools.

But the plaintiffs said they think and hope the judge wants state lawmakers to act faster than that.

"It needs to be addressed promptly," said Mike Blair, superintendent of the Chimacum School District, the first school district to sign on to the lawsuit.

"We can't wait. Children can't wait," said James Kelly, chief executive officer of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, one of the plaintiffs. The Legislature, he said, "needs to respond now."

Thomas Ahearne, the lead attorney in the case, said the plaintiffs will watch what state lawmakers do this legislative session.

"Hopefully, the majority of them will have the courage to do what the constitution requires," he said.

If they choose to delay and stall, he said, then they'll end up back in court.

The case, which was tried over six weeks in September and October, is the biggest lawsuit over school financing in three decades, and most expect Erlick's decision to be appealed. Clark said that decision is not up to him, but he thinks it's a good possibility.

"Paramount duty" to education

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The plaintiffs sued because they think the Legislature has failed to live up to its duty, under the state Constitution, to provide ample funding for public education, leaving districts struggling to fill the gap with local levies, grants and other means.

Washington's Constitution says the state has a "paramount duty" to make "ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders."

Few — if any — other states are charged with giving education such a high priority. Yet Washington state still lags many other states in how much it spends per pupil. By some measures, its per-pupil spending ranks 42nd in the nation.

The state's attorneys had argued that the state is living up to its constitutional duty and that it's up to the Legislature, not the courts, to determine what's ample when it comes to education.

They also have said the suit is moot because state lawmakers agreed last year to expand state support for public schools, and made that pledge to add more than $1 billion to the state education budget by 2018.

The plaintiffs, however, argued that's just one of many promises that the Legislature has yet to keep. They noted that the Legislature also made big cuts in school spending last year — the biggest in recent memory.

The case is one of a number of school-financing lawsuits across the nation in the past decade. The results have been mixed — with some courts ordering states to increase education spending, and some deciding that the level of education spending is lawmakers' call.

The decision comes at an interesting time, given the state's economic woes. The state is facing a budget shortfall of $2.6 billion.

A problem in the past as well

The last big school finance case was filed by the Seattle School District along with about two dozen others in the 1970s. They argued they shouldn't have to rely on the uncertainty of passing local property-tax levies to fund education. In Seattle, voters had just turned down two property-tax levies, forcing the district to slash programs and lay off teachers.

The districts won. Thurston County Superior Court Judge Robert Doran, in a 1977 ruling later upheld by the state Supreme Court, agreed that the state was not living up to its constitutional duty and ordered lawmakers to define and fund a basic education for all students.

After Doran's ruling, reliance on local levies dropped from an average of 20 to 25 percent of their budgets to less than 10 percent. Local levies were supposed to be only for "extras." A second lawsuit a few years later expanded the state's definition of basic education to include areas such as special education and transportation.

Now levies in most districts are up to 20 percent again, and many of them say they rely on them to pay for essential services that state funds aren't enough to cover.

The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction received copies of the ruling Thursday morning.

"We are poring over the decision right now," said OSPI spokesman Nathan Olson.

He said the superintendent's office has 12 copies of the 99-page decision laid out in the agency's executive conference room, and a number of staffers are studying it, including the chief of staff and representatives of the state Attorney General's office.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times staff reporter Katherine Long contributed to this report.

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