Lawmakers have to make basic education top priority

The high court affirmed that Thursday but it, as it should, left it to the Legislature to fulfill the obligation to fund education.

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Thursday the state Supreme Court ruled the state of Washington is failing to meet its constitutional duty to fully fund basic education for all children.

This is hardly a surprise as the state has been chipping away at its education funding in recent years, particularly in the midst of the Great Recession.

But the ruling, despite some stern words, isn't going to change much in the next few years. Washington state already has to trim $1.5 billion from its current budget just to stay out of the red.

Given that, education likely isn't going to get a significant boost in spending.

In the Walla Walla School District, for example, state dollars pay for about 80 percent of overall education costs while the remaining 20 percent comes from the local voter-approved levy and some matching federal funds.

Unfortunately, the amount of money the state has been sending is not increasing while costs are going up, causing schools to reduce programs.

Fixing this problem is ultimately a legislative concern. The high court said as much in its ruling.

The Legislature has been dithering with this issue since the late 1970s, when the state Supreme Court ordered the state to define and fund a basic education for all students.

The Legislature has defined basic education with the consistency of Jell-O. State law, in part, defines basic education as a program to "develop the knowledge and skills necessary to meet the state-established high school graduation requirements that are intended to allow students to have the opportunity to graduate with a meaningful diploma that prepares them for postsecondary education, gainful employment, and citizenship."

We, like the high court, see funding education as the top priority of state government as the state constitution is written.

The court, in its 7-2 ruling, said it will allow the remedy legisltors already approved to stand. That law gives the state until 2018 to provide enough funding to meet its own definition of "basic education."

Perhaps, given the dire financial situation facing the state, that will have to suffice.

But we would hope lawmakers would more clearly define basic education and accelerate the process of funding it or, at the least, make sure funding keeps pace with rising costs.

This, of course, means other areas of the state budget will have to be reduced if taxes aren't increased.

To this point, lawmakers have looked to higher education funding as a place to cut because the state has no constitutional obligation to fund it. Too much has already been cut from our universities and colleges.

We understand no easy choices exist. Ultimately, it has to come down to priorities.

Education, as the court made clear, is the top funding priority for state government.

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