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Education boosters are declaring victory in yesterday's massive state Supreme Court ruling on education funding. But while the court firmly takes the state to task

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Supreme Court Schools Ruling: Dramatic in Conclusions but Not Solutions

school funding1.jpg
Education boosters are declaring victory in yesterday's massive state Supreme Court ruling on education funding. But while the court firmly takes the state to task for failing to meet its duty, the ruling's solution is less conclusive--a point underlined in a dissenting opinion by the chief justice.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Debra Stephens, reveals that the justices wrestled with what to do. Given the "delicate" balance of powers between the court and the legislature, the judges were obliged to "proceed cautiously," Stephens wrote. Already, the ruling noted, the legislature had taken up the issue with a sweeping education reform bill, known as ESHB 2261.

Yet that bill, which offers an expanded notion of "basic education" and requires the state to pay for it by 2018, does not specify where the money is going to come from.

The ruling also pointed out that the Supreme Court, ruling in a similar way on this very same issue 30 years ago, had left it to the legislature to fix the problem--with the unsatisfactory results that gave rise to this lawsuit. "What we have learned from experience is that this court cannot stand on the sidelines," Stephens wrote.

And so the court crafted a compromise: It will let the legislature's bill play out, but it retained jurisdiction over the case to make sure the state is doing what it says it's going to do.

So the court is imposing no new solution, just promising to follow through on the one already in motion. But can it really? It's not hard to imagine that the legislature's progress on its bill--and the court's monitoring--will get bogged down in foot-dragging and endless litigation.

Moreover, Chief Justice Barbara Madsen, in a dissenting opinion joined by James Johnson, points out the majority opinion failed to provide "clear, identified goals" with which to measure the state's progress. Without them, she says, "judicial supervision will be unhelpful, can assure no compliance at, at worst, will be obstructive."

Thomas Ahearne, an attorney representing the coalition of districts and education groups that brought the suit, is more optimistic. He says that the state has already defined goals that the court can use to measure progress; they're in bill 2261.

And he contends that the ruling leaves the state no room for excuses by holding that its duty to amply fund education comes "before any other state programs or operations." Unless it has stopped funding everything else, it can't say it's out of money for schools.

Still, Ahearne concedes that foot-dragging is not out of the question. He likens the ruling to that of Brown vs. Board of Education, greeted by compliance from elected officials in the north and truculence from those in the south. "Will our elected officials be like George Wallace?" he asks.

Stay tuned. The new legislative session, faced with a crippling budget crisis, begins on Monday.

 
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