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Originally published November 12, 2009 at 3:49 PM | Page modified November 12, 2009 at 6:01 PM

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Acceptable inequalities

The Washington state Supreme Court rejected an argument by the Federal Way School District that all school employees be paid the same.

DON'T come to us. That is what the Washington state Supreme Court said, and properly so, to the Federal Way School District, which was demanding more money from the state.

The court's opinion, written by Justice Jim Johnson, has no wobble in it. It was signed by all the other justices, with no side opinions. It saves the state from an immediate constitutional crisis.

Since the framing of the state constitution 120 years ago, education funding has not been uniform. Locally elected school boards and voter-approved tax levies have created a system that varies statewide.

In many ways, events have overtaken Federal Way's case, making some of its arguments if not moot, at least weaker. For one, the Legislature has been steadily closing the gap between funding for Federal Way and other districts. Also, the 2009 Legislature approved major changes in the way school districts are funded.

The issue here was not whether Federal Way schools deserves more state money. All school districts could use more money. Moreover, a lawsuit about whether the state is adequately paying for public education is currently in King County Superior Court.

At stake here was whether the Federal Way School District's receipt of the lowest level of school-salary funding violates the Washington constitution's call for a "general and uniform system of public schools."

The court said it did not, and with a keen eye on the state's dire financial condition, refrained from ordering the Legislature to provide more money.

The real question in this case was whether the underfunding of the Federal Way district is so severe as to require a court-ordered increase from the Legislature. The court's answer was no and is amplified by the following facts:

• For teachers, the difference in state money paid to Federal Way and to the best-funded district was 4.9 percent — a figure "significantly less than cost-of-living variations" around the state, justices said.

• For parents — some of whom had also sued — the court said there was no obvious injury to their children from the state's level of funding, because Federal Way's scores on the WASL test are above the state average.

As policy, the court's reasoning is certainly arguable. Half the districts will have scores above the state average at whatever level of funding, and half below. The educational question is what the state average is. If it is too low, there is a case for more state money.

That decision will have to wait until the state has more money — and it will have to be made in the Legislature.

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