Now that McCleary is settled, education is safe, until …
Now that Washington has put the McCleary case to bed, communities can rest well knowing schools will have full funding from the Legislature.
At least, until lawmakers decide to underfund schools again.
“We’ve done this twice in 30 years,” former Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross, noting that there was a similar case in 1977 that resulted in the “Doran decision.”
The Doran decision ordered state lawmakers to increase funding so school districts could decrease reliance on levies. The argument: Washington’s constitution requires the Legislature to fully fund education. The case made its way to the Supreme Court where lawmakers were ordered to get their act together.
If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because it’s the same exact story that played out with the McCleary decision. That case began in 2007 and recently culminated at the Supreme Court, yet again.
“And 30 years later, we’re back in court again and get to the same result,” McKenna said. “Who knows what will happen over the next three decades?”
“It’s up to the Legislature to keep doing the right thing by funding the schools,” he added. “And if they stop doing it, then they will find themselves back in court.”
Doran, McCleary, and whatever comes next
KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross notes there is a debate over using the courts to set policy. But McKenna said the court was likely the plan from the start when it came to the McCleary lawsuit.
“They passed a law expanding the definition of basic education and the Legislature didn’t fund it,” McKenna said. “They knew that was setting them up for a court case … So I actually think this was part of the plan. It was basically to tell the court ‘Make us do this.’”
This benefited lawmakers. Olympia is often politically charged and divisive. It can be hard to agree on even simple, and commonly supported, things like funding education. With the court forcing lawmakers to do it, they have a pass.
“That allows the Legislature to tell other constituencies that are competing for state funding, ‘Hey, sorry, we are under a court order. We have to expand funding for our public schools,’” McKenna said.
Whether or not another court case is down the road, McKenna said Washingtonians can expect levies to decrease in the meantime. After the Doran decision in the late ’70s, levies went from amounting to 25 percent of school budgeting to less than 10 percent. Of course, lawmakers eventually changed that, leading to the recent case.
“(McCleary) reversed a long-term trend where the share of the state budget going to K-12 schools, and higher education, was steadily shrinking,” McKenna said. “That trend has been reversed and now, for the first time in many decades, public education accounts for more than half of the state budget again.”
“Over time, it means that not only will we see enhanced education, many people in many school districts in the state will see a reduction in school levies because of the cap placed on how much money can come from local levies to fund schools,” he said.