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updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

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Supreme Court's school-funding fine brings collective confusion to the issue

 

Washington isn't the only state where the struggle over education funding has reached the courts. But it's the only state in which the threat of punishment for legislative failure to act has actually become "a bomb" that was dropped, meaning the court's threat of punitive action for its finding that the Legislature was in contempt became action in the form of $100,000 per day fine for legislative failure to sufficiently fund basic education.

Additionally intriguing is the fact the court's six women and three men, each of whose civic and legal credentials make them an extremely impressive collection of jurists, would wind up, in their unanimous agreement, producing not collective wisdom but collective confusion.

The court stirred concern about violating separation of powers for stepping into the legislature's funding role when it first told the lawmakers they were not meeting the state constitution's requirement for adequate funding of basic education. But there has also been the suggestion that if the court was going to step into the legislature's constitutional territory by ordering them to spend more money, it should logically have told them take control of how the money was spent.

Some court observers this week used the word "curiously" to describe the fact that the high court backed off from two of its original decision's central points on education funding, what has become known as the "McCleary decision."

In the original ruling, the court said K-12 funding needed to be 'ample" but also "uniform" and "stable."

Now the court's sole position is spend more money, focusing only on "ample" while saying it has "no opinion" on the "stable" or "uniform" points.

And though the court told the legislators they should go into special session immediately to begin arriving at the solution to the funding problem, the lawmakers basically replied, in so many words, that they'd decide to go back into session when they felt like their discussions had brought them to a decision.

Could be they decided, now that the court has dropped its punishment "bomb," that the penalty isn't that big a deal since if they are going to increase education funding, the $100,000 daily tab will take more than three months to equal $10 million, all of which will go into a special education fund anyway.

Anyone who thinks the court's decision last September holding the Legislature in contempt for failing to make progress on "full funding" of public education, and imposition of that $100,000 fine was a decision devoid of political considerations will draw an amused smile from those more attuned to political realities.

In its original ruling in 2012 that the state was failing to fully fund basic education and thus violating the state constitution, the court was careful to try to sidestep the full brunt of a constitutional conflict. The court said it didn't intend to "dictate the means by which the Legislature carries out its constitutional responsibility or otherwise directly involve itself in the choices and tradeoffs that are uniquely within the legislature's purview."

There is at least a suspicion that political considerations would account for the fact that, while the high court told the legislature it had to put more money into basic education, it failed to take, or even suggest, the logical accompanying step of telling the legislature to take control of how the money for schools is raised and spent.

Though it's possible the state taking total control of education might have been what the court had in mind when it included "uniform" and "stable" in its original decision, before eliminating them from the latest decision.

Teacher salaries and how they are arrived at around the state, through local negotiations with sometimes friendly or fearful school boards, is a major cost factor. The Washington Education Association likes it that way and the court would have set off an outcry from teachers' union members and their supporters across the state if the legislature had been told to not just provide more money, but to take control so it could create spending efficiencies.

Budget leaders in both houses and both parties have suggested that the state take a larger role in setting pay. And some even realize that they have to do that, since the lawmakers, just as they are answerable to students to provide a good education, are answerable to state taxpayers to ensure that those school dollars are being spent as wisely as possible. They can't delegate that task.

It will be much harder for Democrats in the legislature to confront irate teachers' union members than for Republicans. Thus, perhaps, Republicans who control the state Senate should be allowed to take the lead on funding reform that puts the state in the management role.

As Dick Davis, president of the Washington Research Council, wrote in a column after the court's 2012 decision holding the legislature in contempt for its education funding failure, "As the primary funder and constitutionally responsible party, the state needs to step into the management role. That preserves collective bargaining, but changes the dynamic. And, negotiations could include provisions recognizing regional cost-of-living variation throughout the state."

As indicated earlier, adequate funding for education has reached higher courts in a number of states for a variety of reasons.
Thus the debate about separation of powers and limitation of the powers of the court that the Supreme Court decision set off in this state is a discussion now going on in an array of states.

One is Texas, where that state's Supreme Court will hear oral arguments September 1 on a lower-court ruling sought by dozens of independent school districts in the state.

The Texas case has far more sex appeal than Washington's, since the all-Republican Supreme Court is considered likely to overturn a ruling by District Judge John Dietz, who is identified as "Austin Democrat and State District Court Judge," that the state's 'Robinhood style' funding mechanism is unconstitutional."

That system requires districts with high property tax values or large amounts of tax revenue from oil and natural gas interests to turn over part of their property tax collections to poorer districts.

To bring things full circle from one state to another, one of the things being talked about in Washington to correct the funding disparity among districts more reliant on special levies is a property tax swap whereby some richer districts would send money to poorer districts.

I'm not sure how that would come about legislatively, but it has an amusing ring of "Robinhood style" funding.
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