By Bruce Stanton, Guest columnist
‘The Washington Constitution imposes only one “paramount duty” upon 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.”‘ (McCleary 2015, p 1) That is the first sentence of the Supreme Court of Washington’s filing on Aug. 13, 2015. And this “paramount duty” has been and is chronically violated by the Washington legislature.
This decision has been in the news a lot, especially because of its unusual remedial penalty of $100,000 per day against the State of Washington. What has been missing, in my opinion, is a serious explanation and analysis of the issues the Supreme Court is ruling upon. In this column, I will take the reader through the entire order, using quotes from the order itself.
The original McCleary decision was issued in January of 2012. ‘The court retained jurisdiction “to monitor… the State’s compliance with its paramount duty.”‘ (p 1)
The next three pages contain some history of education funding, the legislature and Supreme Court responses.
On page 5 the Supreme Court commends the legislature for significant progress in some key areas, including full funding of transportation, some per-student expenditure goals, all-day kindergarten, and K-3 class size reduction.
Then the order focuses on the very serious problems. The foremost one is the lack of a plan. No plan, or words to that effect, is mentioned eight times during the order. It has been more than three years since McCleary was released and the state still does not have a plan.
“But while there is some progress in class size reduction, there is far to go.” (p 5) To reduce class size, the state needs more classrooms. “The State has provided no plan for how it intends to pay for the facilities needed for all-day kindergarten and reduced class sizes.” (p 6)
In addition to no plan and not enough progress on class size, the third problem is the matter of personnel costs. “As this court discussed in McCleary, a major component of the State’s deficiency in meeting its constitutional obligation is its consistent underfunding of the actual cost of recruiting and retaining competent teachers, administrators, and staff. The court specifically identified this area in its January 2014 order as one in which the State continues to fall short, finding it an “inescapable fact” that “salaries for educators in Washington are no better now than when this case went to trial.” (p 6)
“In the current budget, the legislature approved modest salary increases (across state government) and fully funded Initiative 732 cost of living increases (which had long been suspended), and it provided some benefit increases; but the State has offered no plan for achieving a sustained, fully state-funded system that will attract and retain the educators necessary to actually deliver a quality education.” (p 7)
“Sanctions Are Appropriate For the State’s Continued Failure to Comply with Court Orders.” (p 8) “Despite repeated opportunities to comply with the court’s order to provide an implementation plan, the State has not shown how it will achieve full funding of all elements of basic education by 2018. The State therefore remains in contempt of this court’s order of January 9, 2014.” (p 8)
“Given the gravity of the state’s ongoing violation of its constitutional obligation to amply provide for public education, and in light of the need for expeditious action, the time has come for the court to impose sanctions.” (p 9) Then the court orders the famous $100,000 per day fine.
“Should the legislature hold a special session and during that session fully comply with the court’s order, the court will vacate any penalties accruing during the session.” (p 10)
“Dated at Olympia, Washington this 13th day of August, 2015.” (p11) The signatures of all justices follow the date. It is a unanimous order, as was the McCleary decision and the other McCleary orders.
The Supreme Court does a fabulous job of explaining itself. I encourage everyone who cares about education in Washington State to read it. You can find it at the Supreme Court’s website (www.courts.wa.gov).
Some people may feel this is a technical battle between the legislature and the Supreme Court. If you have children in Washington’s public schools, you are already affected by the lack of education funding. Here in Clark County we have a serious, chronic shortage of substitute teachers; a shortage of substitutes is a shortage of prospective teachers.
At this critical time, while Clark County and the state are trying to reduce class size, baby boomer teachers are retiring in large numbers. And most disturbing, colleges are reporting that substantially fewer students are enrolling in education programs. The demand for teachers is up as the supply is down.
Other states are faced with the same problem. Will Washington remain competitive? Or will we have schools without qualified teachers? And what are the Washington Legislature and the Supreme Court of Washington going to do next?
Bruce Stanton is a retired Washougal High School chemistry teacher.