Suing school districts is answer to funding failure

Washington State School Superintendent Randy Dorn.
Washington State School Superintendent Randy Dorn. AP

In a July 26 editorial, The News Tribune criticizes the lawsuit I filed against seven school districts. The writers believe that while the lawsuit is a “worthy goal,” it is the “wrong tactic.”

But all other tactics to this point have failed. We’re left with an inadequately funded education system that forces districts into unconstitutional practices.

I’m not the only person saying that. In April 2015, The News Tribune editorialized that “rich districts can hire more teachers than poor districts, can pay them better and be more selective about whom they hire.” That has happened because “local school boards have been breaking the law with the tacit approval of the Legislature. Under state law, school levy funds cannot be used for teacher salaries.”

The paper was more blunt in its civic agenda for 2016: “(W)ealthy school districts have illegally used local levy money to fatten the paychecks of their teachers. Poorer school districts can’t compete, which often puts their students at an educational disadvantage.”

Allowing illegal actions to continue threatens our entire society. The News Tribune’s solution in its July 26 editorial is to let the judicial and legislative processes to run their course.

They have run their course. And they have failed year after year after year. At some point dramatic action is needed. My lawsuit is that action.

I don’t blame the seven districts at all for what they are doing. The state has forced them to spend levy money the state should provide. But local levies are unequal and unfair, as The News Tribune recognizes. Sen. Andy Hill (R-Redmond) put it well in a recent blog item when he wrote that education funding should not be “subject to the whims of one’s ZIP code.”

How do we change things? How do we shift from what The News Tribune calls “a privilege-oriented to an equity-oriented funding system”?

The last time true change occurred was with the passage of the Basic Education Act of 1977. It is widely assumed that the bill was passed because of pressure from the Supreme Court, which was looking into the issue of funding. But that’s not what prompted legislative action.

It was levy failures in 65 districts two years earlier, including two in a row in Seattle.

Five years after the Basic Education Act, it wasn't the Supreme Court that convinced legislators to vote for a major tax increase, despite campaign promises to the contrary. Proposed school funding cuts created a public outcry that led to the increase.

We are running out of time and we are running out of solutions.

In August 2015, the state Supreme Court fined the Legislature $100,000 per day for not producing a plan for full funding. That fine, though, has been ignored and even disdained.

My lawsuit will put the same pressure on legislators to avoid layoffs and pay cuts.

McCleary was a judgment against the state, not against districts. The case dealt with insufficient state funding. My lawsuit deals with the unconstitutional result of the funding problem: the use of local levies for basic education. Both are essential problems that my lawsuit solves.

Is a lawsuit the ideal solution? No. But no one, including The News Tribune and the Tacoma School Board, has presented a better idea.

I urge everyone who cares about the future of our children to join in the fight for full and equitable state funding of basic education that can be sustained for generations to come.

As McCleary lead attorney Thomas Ahearne pleaded to the Supreme Court nearly two years ago, “Every year we keep talking about this, kids lose forever another year of their [rightful] education.”

It is time to act. I have been working on education funding for 29 years. Let’s hope my 30th year is one that will make a true difference in students’ lives.

Randy Dorn was elected Washington state superintendent of public instruction in 2008 and was reelected in 2012. He is not seeking reelection in 2016.