McCleary decision has complex history, unclear future
By Elizabeth Lande, Copy Editor
School funding has long been a topic of debate among families, educational staff, and lawmakers across the country, both on a national and local level. Twelve years ago, the situation in Washington burst to the forefront of state politics.
In 2007, two Washington families and the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools sued the state on the grounds that it was failing to fully fund a uniform system of education.
The plaintiffs argued that the state’s then-current policy of partial financial support was in violation of state law under article IX, section 1 of the Washington State Constitution, which states that “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.”
Of particular importance in the case was the debate over allowance for the use of property tax levies, which had been employed extensively as compensation for low funding on a district basis. The plaintiffs argued that the levies favored rich districts, as wealthy families could afford to pay higher taxes, thus improving the education for their own district, while poorer districts could not.
The case, named McCleary v. State of Washington after one of the families involved, made its way to the state Supreme Court and was ruled upon in 2012. The court decided in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the state to find a solution for the lack of funding; they decided that it is the responsibility of the state, not the federal government or local districts, to fully fund Washington schools. However, the state legislature struggled to determine what constitutes “fully funding” basic education.
In 2014, the legislature returned to the courts with a plan to fund education. Their solutions failed to satisfy the state Supreme Court, and the legislature was determined to be in contempt of court. The court ruled that, until the legislature could create an adequate solution, they would be fined $100,000 a day, with the money going toward public education.
Debates in the legislature dragged on. In 2015, the legislature’s attempted compromise of $1.3 billion for the public education budget was rejected — the plaintiffs argued that a minimum of $5 billion was required to adequately fund schools. The court agreed that the legislature was still in contempt of the verdict, and continued to issue daily fines. Additionally, the court set a firm deadline for September 2018.
Among the most controversial decisions was the source of educators’ salaries, previously sourced from local property tax levies. Now, it was the state’s responsibility to cover the cost of educator employment.
In 2017, the legislature agreed that they would account for teacher pay by raising statewide property taxes. At the same time, however, they capped levies, limiting what districts could raise on their own.
The legislature ultimately drafted a plan to put $7.3 billion into public schools over the next four years, with the budget for teacher salaries increasing to $2 billion.
The following year, in June 2018, the court ruled that the legislature had successfully formed a plan to amply fund public schools. The daily fines ceased, officially ending the lawsuit.
However, the effects of the case were far from over. Controversy over teacher pay and local levies persisted especially as, taking advantage of an unprecedented pay raise opportunity, teachers pushed for high salaries. The Washington Education Association has now secured teacher salary raises in more than 30 state school districts.
While these raises are largely considered a victory when isolated from the larger situation, many school districts are facing debt in the coming years. Because the $2 billion won’t last forever, such raises may not be sustainable. Furthermore, the limitations of levies, designed to equalize funding between economically diverse districts, can reduce the ability of districts to support themselves.
Many districts found the McCleary fund guidelines to be vague, and some districts received more funds from the decision than others based on property values. This difference in funding created a disparity in the amount districts can afford to pay their staff.
Adapting the state’s education system for the modern era is also of concern to members of the legislature.
“I’m certainly pleased with the Court’s ruling today, but our work is far from over,” then-Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson said in a June 2018 statement. “While this portion of the journey is complete, we will continue to support our students and teachers and improve all aspects of education for our state’s 1.1 million school kids.”
Districts such as Vashon share these concerns, and staff and students alike have already experienced changes born from the decision, including debates over paraeducator salaries and the looming projection of district-wide debt.