We already knew state Superintendent Randy Dorn had a flair for the dramatic.
At Governor Inslee’s last State of the State speech, Dorn chose not to attend; instead his scorn of the governor was made evident by the note left on his empty chair: "Reserved for kids and students."
A constant critic of both the Legislature and the governor, he cites their failure to fund basic education as his reason for not seeking re-election.
Last week he filed a lawsuit through the King County court system against seven of Washington’s largest school districts; Tacoma and Puyallup are among them. Inadequate state funding forces schools to use money from levies to pay teachers’ salaries, and Dorn correctly sees this as unconstitutional.
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Wealthy school districts use levy money to decrease class size, equip classrooms with technology, plump up teachers’ salaries, and offer professional development opportunities.
Poorer school districts can’t compete, which means some students in Washington don’t have access to instructional assistants, bilingual and special education services, or extra-curricular activities such as athletics or arts.
Until these schools receive adequate state funding, they will continue to rely on levies. Out of the 295 school districts in the state, only 10 districts with fewer than 3,000 students operate without a local levy.
If Dorn wants to be the great protector of kids and students, he needs to keep the pressure where it belongs, on politicians. They are ultimately responsible for the systemic inequities, not the schools.
As the highest official in state education, Dorn’s legal maneuver is akin to a general turning toward his troops and shooting seven of them in the foot. These school districts will now be forced to use limited resources to fight a lawsuit.
He hopes to spur action from the legislature, but forcing governance through the judiciary hasn’t worked so well, and Dorn’s recent lawsuit certainly won’t do more than the Supreme Court is already doing.
In August of 2015, the state Supreme Court ordered the state to pay a daily fine of $100,000, believing sanctions would push lawmakers into fully funding basic education.
So far, leaning on the Legislature to produce results through daily fines is the equivalent of a parent counting to ten when their child misbehaves, only the "parent" in this case is currently on number 345.
For Dorn, this lawsuit makes for a dramatic High Noon exit on a two-term tenure, but it won’t fix McCleary’s underlying problems. We still live in a state that doesn’t support a uniform system of education, where elected officials refuse to brave uncomfortable decisions and implement the state’s constitutional obligation.
Lawsuits and sanctions won’t change these truths; our hope lies with a resolute state Supreme Court and with voters who are paying attention.