Methow Valley School District is part of lawsuit to press for more state money for education
By Marcy Stamper
Saying that the Legislature has not made enough progress in devising a plan to adequately fund basic education, the state Supreme Court has declared the lawmakers in contempt of court.
The justices ruled unanimously on Thursday (Sept. 11) that the Legislature has not shown how it will comply with the court’s order to fulfill the constitutional requirement to fund public education with dependable tax sources instead of local levies by the 2017-18 school year.
That gap in funding has real implications for school budgets. The Methow Valley School District relies on voter-approved levies to pay for almost one-quarter of the district’s budget, paying for academic programs, school supplies, computers and technology, and transportation, according to Methow Valley School District Superintendent Tom Venable.
While budgets were already tight, new state testing requirements have added more expenses for districts, said Venable. New tests in English and math starting this year, called Smarter Balanced assessments, must be administered online, or districts pay a $6 fee per assessment or $12 per student who takes the exams using pencil and paper.
Because that could be quite expensive, the district needs a sufficient infrastructure and number of devices to administer the new assessment online. “It’s truly an unfunded mandate,” said Venable. “We’re not receiving adequate funding for basic education to begin with, and now districts are forced to make decisions about how to allocate resources for technology, based on testing, versus the real world.”
Because state funding doesn’t cover all costs, many districts in Washington state charge course fees, said Venable. This year the Methow Valley School District elected to pay for school supplies and to eliminate course fees.
“We’re really proud of our district for trying to ensure equity and ensure that every student receives a free and appropriate education,” the superintendent said. “It’s a challenge and it squeezes us.”
The Supreme Court’s contempt finding comes out of a lawsuit filed by a coalition of parents, school districts and education organizations in 2007, which the state appealed to the Supreme Court in 2010. The majority of school districts across the state, including the Methow Valley, have since joined the suit.
In January 2014, the justices asked the Legislature to show how it would fund education and asked for regular progress reports.
But after three progress reports this year, the justices found the Legislature was lagging behind.
“The state … has known for decades that its funding of public education is constitutionally inadequate,” the justices wrote in the contempt order, noting a 1978 ruling in the first of several successful lawsuits over the state’s funding of education. ‘This proceeding is therefore the culmination of a long series of events, not merely the result of a single violation.”
The state argued that the Legislature had already submitted a schedule for how financing changes would be phased in and said producing a complete plan is “a complicated and difficult task.”
“Moreover, holding the State in contempt for a failure to legislate is a slippery slope,” said Washington’s senior assistant attorney general in the legal filing.
The court declined to sanction the Legislature, giving the body the opportunity to demonstrate compliance by the end of the 2015 session.