Washington State has a slow-burning educational crisis, and nobody is talking about it because it might be the weirdest, wonkiest educational crisis ever encountered. Here’s my best attempt to catch you up.
Article XI Section 1 of the Washington State Constitution reads like this:
It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.
That’s admirable, I think we can all agree. It’s unique, and kinda cool for a state to build into its constitution a mandate to provide prejudice-free education.
But like most educational policy goals, Washington’s reach has consistently exceeded its grasp. Without an income tax, the state often struggles—especially in a sluggish economy—to provide adequate funding for things like teacher salary, school books, and school buildings.
So this issue has come up before, most notably in 1977 when the Basic Education Act expanded the list of things which the state must pay for to include special education, bilingual education, remediation assistance, and transportation to school. (The Legislature has expanded the list a few more times since then.)
The Levy Loophole
When the state falls short, most school districts issue levies to make up the difference between their district’s need and what the state has budgeted. That’s all well and good, but not all districts have the same capability to generate revenue with levies.
Levy is just a fancy word for a property tax. Poorer districts with lower property values are less able to make up the difference between the state’s budget and their district’s needs.
The disparity between rich and poor school districts is just a fact of life in some states, but in Washington the constitution declares that no such preference should exist.
So what are poor districts to do? Sue the state. That’s what.
The McCleary Decision
In 2012, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled on a 5 year-old lawsuit titled McCleary v. State of Washington in which the plaintiff argued that the state legislature was neglecting its constitutional mandate to provide a prejudice-free basic education.
A serious charge, but the ruling was mostly toothless at the time. And it listed a 2018 deadline to fix it, a date so far in the future it might as well have been written as a stardate.
Last year things got a little more serious when the court delivered a unanimous decision to level a fine of $100,000 per day until the legislature addressed the problem.
That order was made one year ago. So some quick arithmetic puts the total fine in the ballpark of $38 million, depending on your date of reading. But no collection method was specified, and the legislature never allocated the money.
Last year both Republicans and Democrats proposed budgets to address the McCleary Decision, and it took a triple-overtime session to pass a compromise.
But there are wildly different opinions about whether that budget goes far enough. Some lawmakers declared their mission accomplished, but The Supreme Court recently ordered lawmakers to appear on September 7, 2016 and make oral arguments about what has been done. Weird, right?
Who will speak?
What will they say?
How will the court rule?
Will lawmakers even care?
I haven’t the foggiest notion, but we should all watch closely. The events of that day could mean a great deal for the future of education in this state.
If you want a little more detail, Seattle Times has an awesome piece about this slow motion trainwreck.