Funding basic education first requires defining it

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Last week the state Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to submit a plan detailing how it will fully fund basic education by 2018.

That sounds familiar or — as Yogi Berra says — it’s déjà vu all over again.

The high court has issued similar mandates since its initial ruling in January 2012. Look for more.

It’s not that the Legislature is totally ignoring the court and constitutional mandate.

To the contrary, most lawmakers are making a good-faith effort to comply. And we fully expect it will continue to do so as its members convene in Olympia for the annual legislative session starting today.

Lawmakers will come up with a well-intended proposal by the court’s April deadline — and then fail to complete the plan when it becomes clear there isn’t enough money to fund it.

State government continues to be cash strapped in the wake of the Great Recession. While things are looking brighter economically, tax collections still lag behind what they were in the past.

As a result, the Legislature has held the line on spending, eliminating programs and services that were useful. It’s been about setting priorities.

That includes deciding how much can be spent on education. Currently, about 20 percent of school district budgets are funded through locally approved levies.

This complicates the goal of fully funding basic education. What is basic?

Everyone has a different view.

Some say it is really basic — reading, writing and arithmetic. Others see basic as including science, art, music and physical education.

And how does basic mesh with funding salaries and benefits for teachers, administrators and other staff members? Is a teacher-to-student ratio considered to be part of basic education? What about a utilities or the lunch program?

The Supreme Court’s regular scolding might make the justices feel good, but it’s not going to magically make full funding of basic education happen.

The Legislature has a responsibility to first define basic education. The court’s role will then be to determine if the definition is constitutional.

After that, the path to full funding will be clearer — and something that can be achieved.

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