Ruling on school funding puts onus on lawmakers

A Superior Court judge's ruling, which says the state isn't meeting its financial obligation to schools, isn't clear as to what direction officials must take next.

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Last week King County Superior Court Judge John Erlick stated the obvious in ruling that Washington state does not provide enough money to run its public schools. The fact that local levies are necessary to supplement school funding illustrates that point.

Still, much is being made of the decision, as if somehow Erlick's edict will result in a fountain of cash transforming our schools into well-oiled education machines.

But Erlick's ruling doesn't mandate the state spend more on schools today. Washington, like 49 other state governments, doesn't have extra cash anyway.

Nevertheless, the judge states lawmakers must provide "ample" funding. He leaves it up to the Legislature to decide how much funding would be enough and to establish a time table for meeting the financial standard that is established.

Erlick has dropped a political hot potato in the collective lap of lawmakers. His ruling could force lawmakers to define basic education, which is exactly what the state constitution mandates must be fully funded.

How basic education is defined depends greatly on personal experience. Some see basic education as learning to read, write and do math. Others see it as including everything from advanced courses to music.

Whatever lawmakers do they are going to make a lot of their constituents angry.

Yet, lawmakers and the governor want to toss that hot spud back to Erlick or, at least, the judicial system.

"There are some, if you've read the opinion, ambiguities in there ... that really put billions of dollars at risk and litigation ... at play," Gov. Chris Gregoire said at a recent news conference. "I need clear understanding and direction. As does the Legislature."

Gregoire and legislative leaders are considering asking Erlick for clarification or seeking a review by the state Supreme Court, according to The Seattle Times. The ultimate decision on whether to appeal the ruling, however, rests with Attorney General Rob McKenna.

Whatever direction the state goes, it must proceed carefully.

In the end, Washington's education system must provide students with a well-rounded first-class education, not simply a basic education, even if it means the cost is shared by communities through the passing of levies. An appeal or further clarification might threaten the ability to seek local levies.

Given the state doesn't have the money to fully fund every program now being offered at public schools around the state, that would be a blow to efforts aimed at improving all schools.

E-mail letters to letters@wwub.com.



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