Justices will decide if state school-funding crisis is over

Can lawmakers and the governor honestly contend public schools are fully funded and done with McCleary when some school districts still are stressed out and stretched out financially?

Is the end truly near in the landmark school-funding case known as McCleary?

Democratic state Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self thinks so.

“I’m pleased to report the budget we enacted this session fully funds our public schools and will put the McCleary lawsuit behind us once and for all,” the school counselor wrote in an email newsletter to constituents a few days after the 2018 session ended.

She’s not alone in her assessment as other lawmakers have been making the same assertions in their communities.

And Gov. Jay Inslee expressed a similar degree of confidence March 27 after signing a supplemental budget to put nearly $1 billion into educator salaries for next school year, which the state Supreme Court had singled out as the largest missing piece of the McCleary funding puzzle.

But, can lawmakers and the governor honestly contend public schools are fully funded and done with McCleary when some school districts still are stressed out and stretched out financially?

That’s a question the court will soon ponder.

What the McCleary plaintiffs alleged when they filed their lawsuit in January 2007 is the state had not lived up to its constitutional obligation “to make ample provision for the education of all children.” It forced districts to rely too heavily on local property taxes to make up the difference. They wanted the court to make the state re-balance the system.

Yesterday (Tuesday), eight Democrat and Republican lawmakers from the House and Senate were to draft the Legislature’s annual progress report in the case to the Supreme Court. Lawmakers are going to say they’ve done everything they’ve been told to do and are ready for the case to be concluded.

Justices will decide if they agree, probably this fall.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said last week he thinks the justices will side with the Legislature.

“I think the court will likely say they’re done with this particular case,” he said. “Is this the system that actually works? No. Let’s move on and create that system.”

There are plenty of unresolved matters. Reykdal, the governor and lawmakers agree on that much.

Special education costs are rising and additional state dollars needed. Voters approved an initiative requiring smaller class sizes but not much has been done on this front in grades 4 and higher.

Rules surrounding local levies remain a point of contention. And teacher unions are likely to negotiate contracts on a yearly basis until a slew of variables surrounding instructor pay are known.

In the view of Reykdal, these can be handled when the state moves into what he calls the post-McCleary era.

“I think the crisis is over,” he said. “Now it’s about getting people excited about the future.”

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