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Washington Districts, Teachers Back in Court Over Funding

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Seattle--Twenty-six Washington school districts and the state's largest teacher's union headed back to the courtroom this month to fight, for the second time in five years, a battle with the state over who should pay to educate Washington's 700,000 public-school students.

The trial, which is being held in Thurston County Superior Court just outside the state capital, is expected to last two months. Its outcome, observers say, will influence--and possibly decide--the shape of the state's education-funding system in years to come.

The dispute stems from a highly unusual state trial-court decision, rendered in 1977 and affirmed the following year by the Washington Supreme Court, that requires the state to define and pay the entire cost of "basic education." The decision, based on the Washington constitution, went much further than other school-finance orders issued by state high courts, which typically require increased state support but are less exacting about state responsibilities.

'Still Further Cuts'

If the school districts and the Washington Education Association lose the case, "the door will be open to still further cuts" in the education budget by the state legislature, argued Michael Hoge, the attorney for the Seattle School District who is arguing the plaintiffs' case.

"It's a raid on the state treasury," countered Deputy State Attorney General Malachy Murphy, who is leading the state's case.

The state, beset by financial difficulties caused by the ailing housing and aerospace industries, cannot afford to pay even for what the school districts are now asking, he said.

The question of how to pay for education has also taken on significant political overtones here. Washington is one of the few states in the country without a state income tax, and the effect of state-aid cuts on public education became an issue in elections earlier this month. Republicans, who now control the state legislature, claimed the $200 million they cut from the $3.5 billion appropriated for education for the 1981-83 biennium did not diminish public schools' quality. Democrats, on the other hand, who argued that the cuts were devastating, emerged from the election with majorities in both houses.

'Basic Education'

At issue in all of the arguments is the concept of "basic education," which the legislature, following the earlier lawsuit, was ordered by the state supreme court in 1978 to define and "fully fund."

The high court, upholding the 1977 ruling by Thurston County Superior Court Judge Robert Doran, before whom the latest suit is being argued, based its full-funding ruling on an article of the state constitution. The article states, "It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education for all children residing within its borders."

But since the Doran decision, as it became known, school districts have complained that the state has not lived up to its responsibility to pay for "basic education"--even using the state's own definition. Moreover, the districts contend in their new suit, the definition of "basic education" is too narrow, excluding programs that are required by law or deemed necessary by the school districts.

Basic education, as defined by the legisla-ture, includes only regular classroom instruction. Not mentioned in the definition are bilingual and special education, classes for disadvantaged and gifted students, transportation, the cost of maintaining school buildings, extracurricular activities, and teachers' salaries. Districts must pay for these without help from state basic-education funds, but the plaintiffs contend that the legislature did not intend to exclude such programs.

The districts are also asking that the cost of desegregation--particularly voluntary desegregation--be paid for with basic-education funds. The constitutionality of Seattle's desegregation plan, which the local school board adopted by choice in 1977, was upheld this summer by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Another of the controversial requests is that the state pay for teachers' salaries, which were limited last year by the state legislature in the interest of providing more uniform levels among all districts. As a result of the the limit, many school districts have had to use local funds for previously negotiated salary increases that are above the amount now allowed by the state.

The state maintains that the districts should have known the legislature was going to limit salaries and should have planned accordingly. The districts say they had no reason to anticipate the limit, since a similar effort to limit salaries was found unconstitutional shortly before the current lid went into effect.

The many omissions from "basic education" leave Seattle, like other districts with large numbers of students who have special needs, on ''the short end of the stick," Mr. Hoge said. For example, he said, only 55 percent of Seattle's $158-million budget this year comes from state basic-education monies.

"Thus, if basic education is only what the legislature has called 'basic,' and is adequately defined and funded, then 45 percent of Seattle's budget is not needed to offer adequate education," Mr. Hoge said.

Voter-Approved Levies

The only thing "between a decent educational system and disaster," he said, is Seattle's reliance on voter-approved special levies, which now supply about 20 percent of the district's budget.

But Mr. Murphy, arguing on the state's behalf, contends that Seattle and some other districts, "are spending more than is required" on bilingual education, among other programs.

"They're going to tell you they're starving," Mr. Murphy said. "We don't think that's true."

According to the office of the state superintendent of public instruction, the state is funding about 95 percent of "basic education" costs for Washington's 300 school dis-tricts this year, although the 1977 court order requires it to fund 100 percent. Under a different funding formula, the state picked up only 55 percent of districts' transportation costs and 82 percent of special-education costs.

That "so-called underfunding," Mr. Murphy said, is not the fault of the legislature, but the economy. "It's pretty clear to everybody that if the legislature had the money this year, they would have funded those areas," Mr. Murphy said.

In the debate over funding, no one disagrees about Washington's poor economy. About 12 percent of its residents are out of work and the state is clearly in financial trouble. Last year, the legislature was called into three special sessions to deal with financial troubles, which, many estimate, will balloon into a deficit of nearly $2 billion for the 1983-85 biennium.

'Economic Crisis'

"The schools should have waited until the economic crisis was over,'' Mr. Murphy said. "Then, if the legislature was backing away, they could file suit." But Mr. Hoge said the court has heard that argument before--in the earlier school-finance trials. At that time, the state's high court said, "Though the [financial] crisis is recognized, it does not change the constitutional duty of the court or legislature."

Judge Doran is expected to issue a ruling on the case in January. Whichever way he rules, both sides say the case will again be appealed to the state supreme court.

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