King County judge raises education funding stakes

By the Herald editorial staff

"How about running a tab for me?" ask state legislators again this year.

No, it's not a bar tab they're worried about. It's education.

In the past 30 years, since a court ruled the Legislature was not meeting its responsibilities under the state constitution to provide "ample"funding for public school students, there's been a lot of slippage.

At first, legislators designed a system under which local voters paid about 10 percent of their hometown school district's costs through tax levies, on top of the money spent statewide.

These days it seems to have morphed into 20 percent or more, and Democrats in the Legislature and the governor's mansion say they'd like to do more for education but there's this great big deficit.

"Where will we get the money?" they ask.

Thanks to a judge's ruling, they're now under orders to figure it out.

It's a replay of history.

More like a continual loop, actually.

It seems that almost every legislative session is focused on filling a big budget gap -- this year it's a difference of $2.8 billion between what state government wants to spend and what it actually has to spend.

And governments across America, being political first and everything else second, look to trim the things the people will feel most -- like teachers, firefighters and police officers.

This year, again, it's education.

But supporters of education got a big boost when King County Superior Court Judge John Erlick ordered the Legislature to establish the cost of providing a basic education for all students in Washington, then pay for it.

This is what the legislators and governor were supposed to do all along. After all, it's in the state constitution.

As Linda Shaw wrote in the Seattle Times:

"As ... Judge John Erlick finished reading his school-funding decision ..., big smiles broke out on the faces of the winners -- the parents, teachers, superintendents and community leaders who'd argued that the state isn't adequately funding its public schools.

"Erlick strongly agreed with the plaintiffs' contention that the state has long been failing its duty under the state constitution to provide for the 'ample' education of its 1 million school children."

The judge ruled that the state has made progress toward its constitutional obligation but remains out of compliance, failing to provide ample, stable and dependable funding.

About every two years in the Tri-Cities, as in most communities around the state, citizens' committees get together and mount campaigns to get their fellow citizens to do the state's job for it.

Usually, the supporters of the levies are successful, but not always.

And when they are turned down, communities mount other kinds of fundraising campaigns to support theeducational needs of the children.

The state may appeal the judge's ruling. And his ruling still allows the Legislature to decide what is "ample" funding.

Those are big holes -- big enough for the entire Legislature to slip through.

What the judge has told them isn't new, however. The legislators all know they ought to accept the ruling.

Gov. Gregoire says she hasn't yet decided whether to appeal.

Let's hope she doesn't.

The Legislature hasn't met its primary duty under the law for a long time.

It's time to start.