― Henry David Thoreau
For most of the legislators, this is a problem they inherited and didn’t create. Only a third of the House and 31% of Senate were in office before the McCleary Lawsuit was filed in 2007. A large majority in both houses came into office after both ESHB 2261 and SHB 2776 were passed. As politicians who face the demands of re-election, their perspective is likely based on doing the most they can to address the Court’s expectations, while minimizing the amount of new taxes on their voting record. Given that perspective, it isn’t surprising that many legislators have set a fairly low bar for what they think it will take to comply with the McCleary decision.
The Supreme Court Justices, on the other hand, have a much more historical perspective. As anyone who has read the McCleary ruling can tell, the Court views the McCleary case through the lens of the Doran decision. While the elements and the conclusions of the two cases are very similar, the Court’s response is quite different. In both Doran and McCleary, the Court found that the State’s K-12 system violated the ample and uniform provisions of the constitution through its heavy reliance on local levy funds to support basic education. In Doran, however, the Court directed the State to define basic education and then fund it, but at that point the Court backed away.
The current justices have ample evidence that the previous hands-off approach didn’t work, so they maintained jurisdiction in their case. They appear to have accepted the State’s defense before the Court that ESHB 2261 and SHB 2776 would fix the problem. However, they gave the State a deadline until 2018 (the same deadline in that legislation) to fully implement that new funding system. Through their retained jurisdiction, they planned to monitor the Legislature’s annual progress toward achieving those legislative provisions. When that progress seemed lacking, the Court ordered the Legislature to provide a plan indicating how they intended to meet the requirements of the ruling by 2018. The Legislature’s failure to produce the ordered plan is a primary basis for the Court’s September 2014 Contempt Order.
The problem with all three budget proposals is none of them include a plan for reaching full compliance by 2018. One key element of ESHB 2261 that is completely missing in current legislation is how the State intends to fund the part of educator compensation currently covered by local levies. In my November 2014 blog, I cited House Appropriations Chair Ross Hunter, stating that those costs are $3.5 billion in the 2017-19 biennium. If I-1351 is implemented as approved by the voters, another billion dollars of local costs will be added. One can only assume that the Court will frown on any legislative plan that fails to address this significant aspect of basic education funding.
So much for the Court’s and the Legislature’s perspectives. It’s probably worth noting school district leaders’ viewpoint on these developments. Most school district superintendents share the Court’s more historical view of the current situation. Many of them have been working in the K-12 system two, three, or even four decades. During that time, they have experienced first-hand the gap between the Court’s intent and the Legislature’s actions. And as leaders, they’ve been forced to find ways to fill that gap. While there is a general recognition that local levies should not support basic education, these leaders know that without levies students would suffer by missing the critical, ongoing support provided by those funds. They also recognize the wide disparity in the ability of various communities to support their schools through local levy funding, so they understand the Court’s ruling that levies shouldn’t be used to fund basic education services.
As much as superintendents support that position, the thought of losing levy capacity to meet those needs is making most of our leaders very nervous. And more so, when our policy makers pronounce “job done” with the implementation of the minimal provisions of SHB 2776. That not only avoids the very difficult issues related to local funding for compensation, but there are many other problems with the staff allocation ratios defined in SHB 2776. Here are but a few examples. The “prototypical” elementary school of 400 students receives 0.076 of a School Nurse, 0.017 of a Psychologist, and 0.493 of a Guidance Counselor. The “prototypical” middle school of 432 students receives 0.060 School Nurse, 0.002 Psychologist, and 0.519 of a Librarian. Can anyone argue with a straight face that such allocations make sense? Should the Court view this as an ample provision of these services?
In addition to those formula inadequacies, there are other issues not even addressed in the new allocation formula. Because of the recent substitute teacher shortage, WASA studied the suggestion that the problem was caused by school districts not paying the substitutes enough. Based on our analysis, school districts are paying about $100 million more for substitute teachers than they receive with the current allocation formula. Local levies have covered those costs as well as the cost of providing more reasonable staffing than allocated by the prototypical funding model. It is difficult to argue that these are not basic education functions. Until the State does a more realistic job of funding the real cost of basic education, however, local levy resources are the only tool district leaders have to make the system work in the real world with real students and teachers attempting to meet their community’s expectations.