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Fight over education funding heads to state Supreme Court

With lawmakers having slashed nearly $4 billion in funding from school districts in the past few years, arguments are heating up over whether the state is fulfilling its constitutional duty to students.
Associated Press
With lawmakers having slashed nearly $4 billion in funding from school districts in the past few years, arguments are heating up over whether the state is fulfilling its constitutional duty to students.

The state constitution says it’s Washington’s “paramount duty to make ample provisions for the education of all children,” but is it failing to do that? This afternoon, the state Supreme Court will consider arguments on both sides.

The past few years have been tough on the state’s public schools. Lawmakers have slashed nearly $4 billion in funding to districts.

At the same time, they’ve raised the bar for students, teachers and administrators. Art Jarvis, superintendent of Tacoma Public Schools, says it’s put him in an impossible situation:   

“I cannot tell the Tacoma teachers that we’re going to reduce their pay, reduce the number of school days, increase the number of students in their classrooms and, by the way, we need you to get better results," he says. "As a school superintendent, I have to say, that’s crazy."

Court Becomes Only Hope

Jarvis says he used to be optimistic the state would pony up to meet its education goals. Now he doubts they’ll ever provide enough funding:

“It appears that right now, I have to say, sadly, that unless it’s carried out as a result of a lawsuit, it does not seem to have the commitment to bring the funding into the schools that’s necessary to do what we need to do."

Last month, Tacoma joined 175 other districts in a coalition called the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools that is suing the state for more money. The districts say Washington is failing to uphold its constitutional duty. 

A King County Superior Court judge agreed last year. He ruled that school funding is not ample, stable, or dependable and ordered lawmakers to figure out how much it costs to give kids a basic education. 

Of course, the state didn’t like that too much and appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

How Much Is Enough?

Dave Stolier, a lawyer for the state, says he thinks the state has upheld its duty:

“The thing that’s been preserved while everything around it has been cut, the last thing that’s been preserved is basic education."

That depends on how you define basic

The state says basic just means a certain amount of instruction time. The school coalition and the lower court judge say access to teaching isn’t enough. Basic means students are actually learning the curriculum. 

Mike Blair, the group's president, says it based its argument on the standards the state created itself:

"It's the Essential Academic Learning Requirements," he says. "Not suggestions. Not, well, you hope we get there. Our kids should be able to read with comprehension and do some basic math skills. They should be able to do that when they graduate."

Weighing the Costs

Stolier says getting all kids to meet the state's standards is a great goal, but it’s not a realistic without way more money. He says that would mean making devastating cuts to other services, such as public safety and Medicaid, or raising taxes.

“What is it going to take to get that kid to that standard? And, is the constitutional obligation to do whatever it takes? The state says, no, it is not outcome driven."

The Supreme Court isn’t expected to decide who’s right until fall at the earliest. If it sends the case back to the lower court, it could drag on for several more years. As it stands, it's been underway since 2007.

If the whole thing sounds a little familiar, you're probably right.

The Supreme Court ruled on a similar case in 1978. It required the state legislature to provide ample, dependable funding for “basic education” as its highest priority. It also decided forcing school districts to rely on local levies to fund basic education was unconstitutional.


Charla joined us in January, 2010 and is excited to be back in Seattle after several years in Washington, DC, where she was a director and producer for NPR. Charla has reported from three continents and several outlets including Marketplace, San Francisco Chronicle and NPR. She has a master of journalism from University of California, Berkeley and a bachelor's degree in architecture from University of Washington.