KENT, Wash. - The state of Washington is not fulfilling its constitutional duty to fully pay for basic public education, a King County judge ruled Thursday.
The decision from Superior Court Judge John Erlick came after nearly two months of testimony last fall in a lawsuit brought by a coalition of school districts, parents, teachers and community leaders. They said the state was failing its constitutional duty and leaving school districts to rely on local levies, donations and PTA fundraisers to educate students.
The state disagreed, claiming it does meet its constitutional duty.
Erlick acknowledged the state's efforts at reforming the way its pays for education and encouraged lawmakers to continue that.
But he said he based his decision on a state Supreme Court ruling from 30 years ago which found the state must amply provide for basic education. Relying so heavily on local levies fails that standard, he said.
For instance, each day Kent bus drivers transport nearly 11,000 children to and from school, the state paying for more than half of the cost. The rest, $2 million per year, comes directly from taxes the community is asked to pay.
"Without our levy funding, we would not be able to run the schools as we do," says Kent Schools spokesperson Becky Hanks.
Kent is not alone, nearly all districts rely heavily on levies.
Erlick noted in his opinion that despite 30 years of studies and good intentions, the state has failed to meet the requirements of the Supreme Court's Seattle School District ruling.
The state does not provide enough money to give every child a chance to meet the state's essential learning requirements, the judge said. Instead, the state depends on "funding formulas" that do not correlate with the actual cost to teach the state's 1 million children, he wrote.
"The court is left with no doubt that under the State's current financing system the State is failing in its constitutional duty to make ample provision for the education of all children," the judge wrote in his decision. "This court is convinced that basic education is not being funded by a stable and dependable source of funds provided by the state."
The ruling brought tears to Stephanie McCleary's eyes. She helped bring this lawsuit on behalf of her children.
"This is huge. It's huge to put kids first in our state and I'm just very happy and excited that the judge did that," said McCleary. She got fed up with fundraising and reliance on outside sources like basic needs for books.
Thomas Ahearne, an attorney representing the coalition, welcomed the decision. He said he was not surprised and was particularly pleased the judge agreed with his team's main arguments.
"The devil's really in the details," he said, after hearing Erlick's oral presentation but before reading the judge's written decision.
A lawyer for the state said he expected both sides would find something to appeal in Erlick's decision. Assistant Attorney General Bill Clark emphasized, however, that the decision whether to appeal would be made by the attorney general, the governor and the Legislature.
Clark said he wasn't disappointed in all of Erlick's ruling. He was happy the judge acknowledged the reform work already being done in the Legislature.
"We're happy that he's letting that process continue," Clark said.
The big question now is the timeline for reform. The Legislature has committed to reform the way it pays for basic education by 2018.
The judge did not set a specific timeline for reform but urged the Legislature to proceed with real and measurable progress to establish the cost of basic education and find a stable way to pay for it.
McCleary, said 2018 isn't soon enough for reforms if her two children, ages 16 and nearly 11, are to benefit, but she expressed hope that things would be better for her grandchildren.
"As long as we put children first ... our future looks a lot brighter," she said.
The chair of the coalition that brought the lawsuit was pleased with the judges decision and agreed that too much local money is being used to pay for education.
"That's unstable and unpredictable and unreliable," said Mike Blair, who is also superintendent of tiny Chimacum School Districts, which educates just over 1,000 students on the Olympic Peninsula.
Much of the testimony Erlick heard focused on how much it costs to run a school district, whether the state is meeting its obligations, whether student achievement is connected to school funding, and whether the Legislature's attempts at school reform have been adequate.
The judge's ruling offered a moral as well as legal perspective.
"Society will ultimately pay for these students. The state will pay for their education now or society will pay for them later through unemployment, welfare or incarceration," Erlick wrote.