The Early Learning and K–12 Education Committee, under the open-minded leadership of Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, recently heard revealing testimony on how best to fund our schools.
In a surprise to many lawmakers, Senior Assistant Attorney General David Stolier testified that the state Supreme Court did not order the Legislature to fund House Bill 2261, as had been widely reported. The bill number refers to the 2009 law that lays out one way for the state to provide a basic education program to all 2,300 public schools.
As Stolier put it, the McCleary decision does not say HB 2261 is “the only and forever remedy.”
The court recognized that only our elected Legislature can define basic education, and that could include repeal of HB 2261, as long as it is not done for purely financial reasons. Here is the key exchange:
Litzow: “If we came back with a different way of funding the schools, would they (the court) say, ‘No, you have to follow HB 2261,’ or is it we have the latitude as the Legislature to define what is basic education and how we fund it, and if we are meeting the overall objective?”
Stolier: “I think it is the latter. HB 2261 is what you had done up to that point that the court was able to say, ‘This will do it, we can endorse this as a remedy,’ but it is not the only and forever remedy.”
Chairman Litzow then asked whether spending is the sole answer for improving schools.
Litzow: “If we walk back and just said, ‘Here is another X amount of money,’ would the court see that as fulfilling the responsibility? Or is it, ‘Here is X amount of money, and here’s additional things (reforms) that we’re doing to provide educational opportunities for everyone?’ ”
Stolier: “I think fundamentally the court is saying, ‘You’ve enacted a program; provide the resources to support it, and if you change the program, provide the resources to support that.’ ”
And there you have it. The court did not order the Legislature to fund HB 2261, as the teachers’ union and other defenders of the education status quo would have us believe. Besides, the numbers show that simply spending more money on schools doesn’t work. Former Gov. Chris Gregoire tried it and failed. She increased education spending by $4 billion after raising taxes in 2005, and student test scores remained flat and the graduation rate barely moved.
In a candid moment with The Seattle Times, Gregoire famously admitted, “I put a lot more money into K–12 (schools). But then you sit there and say, ‘Why have I not been able to get the result I set out to achieve?’ ”
Pouring more money into the same system and expecting a different result does not help students in struggling schools. Instead, our elected lawmakers, not judges, must set school policy and enact needed reforms. The McCleary decision itself says, “This court defers to the Legislature’s chosen means of discharging its (public education) duty.”
The advent of new ideas is possible because a unique bipartisan agreement allows a reform-minded senator to lead the Education Committee. At the hearing, the former chair, Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, appeared annoyed as ideas she had blocked for years were openly discussed. Last year, for example, she killed more than 40 education-related bills and canceled all committee business rather than allow a single charter school bill to come up for a vote. Voters later enacted the bill as Initiative 1240.
A new day is dawning for children in our state. With fresh legislative leadership and a new governor, leaders in Olympia have a chance to enact reforms that actually help kids.
Tyler Nebeker of the Washington Policy Center can be reached at 206-937-9691 or by email at email@example.com.