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Washington Judge Orders Cuts Restored in State Funding Case

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Correspondent Bill Mertena in Olympia contributed to this report.


A Washington State trial judge has reaffirmed the constitutionally protected status of education in that state and has given the legislature until the summer of 1984 to restore cuts and to correct other deficiencies in its school-aid system.

In a detailed opinion delivered orally, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Robert J. Doran ruled that the state has improperly underfinanced the "basic education" required by the state constitution and specifically defined by the legislature in 1978 after the first successful challenge to the state's system of school support. The judge also said that "basic education" must include bilingual education, special education, remedial assistance for underachieving students, and, in most cases, transportation.

The suit, Seattle et al. v. Washington, also known as "School Funding II," was filed last summer in the state supreme court by 26 of the state's 300 school districts and referred to the circuit court for a hearing, which concluded in March. The plaintiffs indicated that they would not appeal Judge Doran's decision, although the state supreme court may elect to review it even if the state does not appeal.

The state argued that the cuts were necessitated by the state's severe financial difficulties, but the judge, while acknowledging the problem, did not accept it as justification. Like his decision in the earlier school-finance case, Judge Doran's order rested on Washington's constitution, which is unusually stringent with regard to education. It says, in part: "It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for all children residing within its borders."

The decision represented a partial victory for both the state and the plaintiff school districts, led by Seattle, that challenged $200 million in budget cuts imposed for the 1981-83 biennium. The districts, joined by parents' groups, handicapped-rights advocates, and the Washington Education Association, also sought, but did not obtain, full state funding for other programs, including food service, desegregation, costly deferred repairs to buildings, and the education of gifted and talented students.

In addition, the teachers' organization sought to restore unrestrained salary negotiations between districts and local bargaining units, but Judge Doran concluded that the legislature has the right to impose statewide limits on salaries, provided the limits are set in advance and adhered to.

If the order had been in effect for the current school year, districts would have picked up an additional $205 million in state aid, estimated Michael Hoge, lawyer for the Seattle school district. However, the judge declined to order the state to compensate retroactively for the cuts imposed in 1981-83. Nonetheless, Mr. Hoge said in a letter to the other plaintiffs, "We're pleased with the result."

The plaintiffs estimated that if they had obtained everything they asked for in the suit, with the exception of compensation for deferred maintenance, it would have cost the state about $400 million per year. Of the state's current annual budget of roughly $8 billion, slightly under half now goes to support education.

'Basic' Instructional Programs

Observers noted that the state spending plans advanced so far for the 1983-85 biennium call for $250 million to $600 million in new taxes and would restore some of the funding cuts that Judge Doran found unconstitutional. The judge indicated that "basic" instructional programs should be shored up immediately and gave the state until July 1, 1984, to remedy the underfunding of mandated auxiliary services.

The most significant factors to be considered in the school-support system, Judge Doran said, are pupil-staff ratios and salaries. "Sufficient funding must be provided to employ competent teachers," he emphasized in ruling that the cuts made in the past few years were unconstitutional. In addition, he said, costs for substitute teachers must be considered part of providing a "basic education" and must be reimbursed by the state.

He also reversed a 1982 law requiring districts to provide financial support for the state's regional Educational Service Districts. That requirement, the judge said, forced districts to divert scarce funds, effectively resulting in "underfunding of basic education."

The legislature also erred, he said, in putting remedial, bilingual, and special education into block grants to districts and cutting the total amount available for the programs, which are required by state law. The legislature gave "no educational reason" for excluding from the block grant certain categories of disabilities and did not provide enough funds for a growing special-education enrollment, he said. The state, the judge added, can "cure the block-grant program" by appropriating additional money or by removing the programs from the state-mandated list.

Judge Doran, who is expected to complete his written findings of fact and conclusions of law next month, concluded, as he did in his 1977 school-finance decision, by saying that if the legislature and citizens "find the constitutional requirements too onerous," they have the power to amend the constitution.

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