- McCleary Decision
The same theory can certainly be applied to the public policy arena. It seems particularly well-suited to our state’s current struggle to meet the paramount duty and ample school funding provisions of the Washington State Constitution. Our state Supreme Court has ruled twice in the past four decades that our funding system doesn’t meet that constitutional standard. In their 2012 McCleary ruling and subsequent orders, the Court was quite specific about elements of the current system that were inconsistent with our constitution. Given those opinions, an optimal funding system that meets the constitutional standard laid out by the Court should be relatively easy to develop.
Almost by definition, though, the political process is designed for expediency rather than optimal results. That’s the reality with the kind of horse trading and intransient positions that often characterize political discourse. And that is what we’re currently witnessing in Olympia. In the past few months, three different proposals have been put forward to address the McCleary decision. It could be argued that none of the three fully addresses the elements of that decision. In terms of funding, the plan from the Governor sets the highest bar, the Senate plan represents the low end, and the House is somewhere in the middle. There is such a wide gap between the Senate and House plans that the only prediction one can make with any confidence is that at least one Special Session will be needed to reach an agreement.
One of the problems with this impasse is that educators tend to hold on tighter to what’s known when the post-McCleary future is so uncertain. The use of local levies is a good example of that dilemma. The Court was clear that it is the state’s responsibility to fully fund basic education and that there has been an over-reliance on local levies to backfill what the state had failed to adequately, much less amply fund. Most of the school leaders I know agree with that aspect of the ruling and are willing to let go of some levy capacity if the state provides ample funding for our schools. It’s difficult, though, for those leaders to trust a legislature whose actions over the years have demonstrated that our schools are not their paramount duty.
The biggest McCleary issue yet to be resolved, is how to unravel the complicated blending of local and state funding for basic education compensation. The position of the teachers’ association is that these local salary enhancements should continue even after the state provides full funding of salaries. The mental gymnastics required to promote that position in light of two State Supreme Court rulings is truly baffling, but it probably stems from a lack of confidence in our Legislature to create and then sustain the ample funding system ordered by the Court.
Next to salaries, the allocation of staffing is the other big issue left to tackle. In 2009, the Legislature adopted the prototypical school funding model as its definition of basic education. The model is a research-based approach that provides staffing allocations for all of the key positions required to run our schools. The problem with this model isn’t, as the Senate contends, a lack of transparency. The problem is that the Legislature has never funded the levels proposed by either the researchers who presented the model, or as recommended by their own Quality Education Council. As a result, most districts backfill the allocation with additional staff hired with local levy funds. The open questions related to such staffing is whether the state will more amply fund the model they adopted, and whether school districts will be allowed to continue funding any deficiencies in those allocations.
Language included in the levy cliff bill SB 5023, which the Governor signed on March 15, may provide some indication of how the Legislature intends to address this issue:
Enrichment beyond the state-provided funding in the omnibus appropriations act for the basic education program components under RCW 28A.150.260 is a permitted use of maintenance and operation levies. (p. 6)
RCW 28A.150.260 is the statute that specifies the funding levels for each component of the prototypical model. So, with the passage of SB 5023, the state is saying that basic education is defined as the allocation levels funded by the state. And, therefore, school districts are permitted to “enhance” those allocations with additional staff funded by local levies.
As one who is concerned about the Legislature’s ongoing commitment to ample school funding, I was somewhat relieved by the flexibility provided in this language. From the perspective of equity, however, this provision continues the problems that led to the McCleary decision. With significant local funding permitted, property rich school districts can offer their students better educational support than property poor districts can afford. As an example of that disparity, in 2016 Bellevue School District’s local levy raised $3,191 per student with a rate of $1.20 per $1,000 of property value. By comparison, even with levy equalization, Yakima raised only $2,008 per student at a local taxpayer cost of $3.10 per $1,000.
As with many aspects of the Legislative efforts to address the McCleary ruling, the unanswered question is how the Court will respond to this legislative position regarding basic education. The following language in their 2012 ruling would seem to indicate that the Court would be concerned about that definition:
We agree with the trial court’s conclusion that the legislature’s definition of full funding amounts to little more than a tautology. If the State’s funding formulas provide only a portion of what it actually costs a school to pay its teachers, get kids to school, and keep the lights on, then the legislature cannot maintain that it is fully funding basic education through its funding formulas. (p. 60)
As we talk with both legislators and school district leaders, it seems that many are becoming weary with the whole McCleary question. The danger inherent in that weariness is a satisfycing solution that may leave our schools with better funding in the near term, but with little long-term resolution of the State’s paramount duty to amply fund our schools. Even if the Legislature falls into that trap, the Court may well push it to more fully address the funding problems that have plagued Washington’s public schools for several decades. Or perhaps the Court grown weary of the discussion as well.
As we rapidly approach the Court’s McCleary resolution deadline, now is not the time for any of the parties involved to accept less than the best we can offer every student in Washington State.