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Making sense of McCleary

Release Date: 

April 10, 2015

Here on the SBE Sounding Board, you’ll find a user-friendly chronology of events in the McCleary court case (also available as a PDF). The chart includes what happened, why it happened, the takeaway, and excerpts of language from court rulings and legislative reports. When it comes to understanding why the state is in contempt of the Court, these details matter. You can get a very real feel for the language of the rulings, and what the Court expects in the way of a plan to fund basic education, by reading just these few pages. This summary outlines how urgent the situation in McCleary has become, and some areas the state may be focusing on in its budget response this session.

The state’s progress toward purging contempt

The Court found the Legislature in contempt of Court in its Sep. 11, 2014 order. The Legislature can only purge contempt by complying with the original order to provide “a complete plan for fully implementing its program of basic education for each school year between now and the 2017-18 school year.” The Court’s order reads as follows:

The State failed to submit by April 30, 2014 a complete plan for fully implementing its program of basic education for each school year between now and the 2017-18 school year. Sanctions and other remedial measures are held in abeyance to allow the State the opportunity to comply with the court’s order during the 2015 legislative session. If by adjournment of the 2015 legislative session the State has not purged the contempt by complying with the court’s order, the court will reconvene to impose sanctions and other remedial measures as necessary. On the date following adjournment of the 2015 session, if the State has not complied with the court’s order, the State shall file in the court a memorandum explaining why sanctions or other remedial measures should not be imposed.

In describing the program of basic education requirements in previous decisions and orders, the court references two landmark pieces of legislation (ESHB 2261 and SHB 2776) as well as the recommendations of the Joint Task Force on Education Funding (JTFEF). In January 2013, the State Board of Education reviewed the final report. The question becomes, then, what items must be in this plan for it to comply and effectively purge the contempt?

It seems clear that the four core commitments of HB 2776 need to be included in the plan: pupil transportation, full-day kindergarten, K-3 class size, and maintenance, supplies, and operating costs (MSOC). The House and Senate budget proposals address these in different ways. On this basis, legislators have declared these budgets to be responsive to the Court’s requirement for a plan, but a few questions remain.

There are other elements of the program of basic education that previous orders emphasize, but neither budget proposal fully addresses. These are educator salaries, facilities funding, and local levy reform.

The House budget provides salary increases for state-funded K-12 employees beyond cost of living adjustments (COLAs). Are these increases sufficient to satisfy the requirements of a basic education? To quote from the Jan. 9, 2014 order (pg 5):

Another area in which the State’s Report falls short concerns personnel costs.… it skims over the fact that state funding of educator and administrative staff salaries remains constitutionally inadequate…. nothing could be more basic than adequate pay… it is deeply troubling that the State’s report does not address this component of ESHB 2261 or offer any plan for meeting its goals.

While HB 2261 did not commit to specific salary levels, it did express an intent to “enhance the current salary allocation model” (pg 56, line 35). It continued, “The legislature also understands that continuing to attract and retain the highest quality educators will require increased investments.” While the Legislature has some latitude in how to achieve this goal, providing a uniform cost-of-living adjustment in this year’s budget may not fulfill the requirement and purge the contempt.

From the same order: “…the current level of funding falls short of the JTFEF plan in every category except full day kindergarten, and, as noted, the funding for that category does not account for the additional capital investment needed to implement…” So, again, while it’s clear that the Legislature has some latitude in how to achieve the outcome, the court seems to be saying that the facilities costs associated with implementing full day kindergarten and class size reduction are an implicit commitment of ESHB 2261. The Senate, through SB 6080, provides funding for additional classrooms for class-size reductions in kindergarten through third grade. Both the Senate and House capital budgets also provide bonds and funding increases for school facilities, and the House funding includes grants for facilities needed to implement full-day Kindergarten. It would seem to be important that the final budget deal respond in some way to this aspect of the order.

And finally, local levy reform. The original language of ESHB 2261 contains even-handed language about the role of local excess levies (see pg 38). The bill emphasized that “the opportunity for local communities to invest… promotes support for public schools.” In concludes that “local levy authority remains an important component of the overall finance system… even though it is outside the state’s obligation for basic education.”

The court’s focus on local levies has been stronger, focusing on the degree to which districts have relied on them to fund basic education programs. The court has clearly determined this aspect of the system to be unconstitutional. From the original decision:

The fact that local levy funds have been at least in part supporting the basic education program is inescapable. As of 2010, all school districts have a levy lid of 28 percent, and 90 grandfathered districts maintain levy lids as high as 38 percent. Laws of 2010, ch. 237. The trial evidence does not show that increases in local funding went strictly to providing “enhancements” to “basic education.” Instead, the increase in school districts’ levy capacity over the years reflects the growing need to fill the gap between state allocations and the actual cost of providing the program of basic education. Reliance on levy funding to finance basic education was unconstitutional 30 years ago in Seattle School District, and it is unconstitutional now.

Neither chamber has proposed any local levy reform in their budgets or other legislation this session. Furthermore, increasing K-12 funding this year, absent some plan for local levies, may in fact exacerbate the extent to which they contribute to base educator salaries. For example, if the final budget effectively buys out the costs that local levies have borne in supporting basic education programs in the past – for example, costs for full day kindergarten, maintenance and supplies, or lower K-3 class size – that newly freed up levy funding may in fact contribute to new salary increases in unpredictable and inequitable ways across the state. For this reason, what you do for levy reform might be equally important to when you do it, because the longer you wait, the harder it becomes to address.

There is much hard work still ahead to get to a state budget for the next two years. Parents, teachers, employers – indeed, every citizen of Washington – should look closely at the result of the negotiations going on now to see if it gets us on track for full constitutional compliance with the state’s paramount duty by 2018. Because all of us, whether or not we’re directly involved with the state’s education system, have a great stake in realizing the promise of McCleary.

Media Contact: 

Alissa Muller, SBE Communications Manager, (360) 725-6501