The Washington Supreme Court recently rapped the Legislature’s knuckles for not moving fast enough to beef up funding for basic education.
In an order filed by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen, the Legislature was told to have something better to report in spring 2013 and to have the situation solved by 2018.
The court’s “do it or else” approach begs the question: Or else what?
Will the court set the budget? Will it impose taxes? Will it take over the school system? Will it arrest the Legislature and sentence its members to prison? Will it dissolve the Legislature and require new elections?
Not likely. The court has no authority to impose taxes, set budgets or run education systems. It can’t arrest or sentence anyone, and it certainly can’t dissolve another branch of government. So all its huffing and puffing makes a good show, but lacks substance.
Justice James M. Johnson’s dissent stated that Madsen’s order violates the constitution in two ways: the separation of powers and the delegation of education to the Legislature.
Is it the Legislature’s constitutional responsibility to fund basic education? Yes. The Supreme Court is charged with making decisions on constitutional issues, and it correctly decided the Legislature has that responsibility.
What becomes trickier is that the court then had to come up with some way of measuring whether the Legislature had done this. Everyone has a different measuring stick. If you fill a room with citizens and ask them to define basic education you will get a multitude of answers. Some say it is as simple as reading, writing and arithmetic. Others insist it includes science. Still others demand the inclusion of art and music. Many feel health, physical education and sex education fall under the definition.
Then there is the question of whether basic education funding includes salaries and benefits for teachers, administrators, janitors and other staff members. And what ratio of teachers/administrators/staff to students should be funded as basic education? What about a portion of utilities or the lunch program?
Before the Legislature — or the Supreme Court — can decide on appropriate funding it first must define basic education. That task clearly belongs to the Legislature. The court’s role is to decide if the definition is constitutional. Once this is done, the funding debate can proceed with a clearer map.
One of the objections to current funding is that education spending has gone from close to 50 percent of the budget to just above 40 percent in the past decade. But does that mean funding now is inadequate or was it excessive before? It depends on the definition.
While in reality the court may have only the bully pulpit to put teeth into its insistence on adequate funding for basic education, it should keep the issue in the public’s eye. It is the public that must decide whether the Legislature has clearly defined basic education and whether it is meeting its responsibility. And it is the public through its votes that can enforce its will.