Judge must decide case, not solution

The lawsuit trying to force the state to pay the full cost of education is deja vu all over again.

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What could prove to be one of the most important court cases in the state's history is finishing the first of an anticipated six-week trial in King County Superior Court.

In reality this case could take years to eventually reach a decision by the state Supreme Court.

The Network for Excellence in Washington Schools -- a coalition of 30 Washington school districts, parents, teachers and community groups -- wants the court to force the state to pay the full cost of education. (None of the school districts in the Walla Walla Valley are part of the lawsuit.)

In the 2009-2011 budget, the state allocated $13.1 billion, or 42.6 percent, of the General Fund for K-12.

Depending on the final outcome of the case, it could mean a drastic restructuring of the state budget to increase education funding and reduce other services. Or major tax increases could be imposed to fund the schools and retain the other state services. Or the status quo could prevail with some schools continuing to limp along without sufficient local support to fill the gaps left in state and federal funding. Or the state could move forward with a new way of distributing funds to reflect the economic diversity of the districts.

If this seems like déjà vu all over again, it's because it is.

The state Supreme Court decided in 1978 the state Constitution requires the state to fund basic education. At that time, the court left it up to the state to define "basic education."

According to reports by The Associated Press, some of the issues include: Is the state funding the definition of basic education it came up with in the 1970s? Has there been a de facto expansion of the definition that was never set down in law? Do the courts have any place wading into the specifics of education funding, or is this area strictly for the Legislature?

The last question is among the most interesting and most worrisome.

We have already seen through the decrees of Judge Jack Tanner, who ordered the state Department of Corrections in the early 1980s to either build more facilities or let inmates out, and by Judge James Redden, who continues to hold the fate of the Snake River dams in his hands because he disagrees with plans to save salmon, that judges can wield a pretty big stick. And they don't have to worry about how much it will cost or how budgets will be balanced.

Compelling arguments can be made by the coalition and by the state in regard to funding education. The judge needs to keep in mind that his role is to determine the facts and how they square with the Constitution.

The judge's job is to decide if the state is meeting its legal obligations. If the decision goes against the state, the judge must leave it up to the legislative and executive branches to figure out how to meet those obligations.

It will be up to the members of the public to become engaged with lawmakers over how much they are willing to pay and for what.

If the state prevails, it must return with renewed vigor to finding ways to help struggling districts.

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