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Originally published January 6, 2012 at 3:46 PM | Page modified February 6, 2012 at 11:46 AM

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Washington Supreme Court ruling should take education cuts off the table

The Washington State Supreme Court's admonition that the state should better fund public schools sends a strong message to lawmakers as they tackle their ongoing budget crisis. No more cuts should be made to education and savings in other parts of government should be funneled to education.

Seattle Times Editorial

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THE Washington Supreme Court ruling on state education funding should build a sturdy barricade against more budget cuts to the K-12 system.

The state budget crisis continues. There is no easy money. The Legislature must see the ruling as a strong impetus to speed up education reforms that save money and improve efficiencies. And it should make cost-saving reforms in other parts of government, funneling that money to education.

Some new revenue ought to be part of the equation but the bottom line is this: Protect education funding. This page has argued for leaving education spending — from early learning to higher ed — mostly untouched.

In ruling that the state is failing to meet its constitutional duty to fully fund K-12 education, the high court added an important twist: It will not sit silently by while its opinion gathers dust. The Supreme Court plans to ensure the Legislature implements its 2009 education reform plans. When the Legislature passed its major education-reform bill, it agreed to put changes in place by 2018. The court wants it to move faster. We agree.

The nine-member court was united about education funding. Justices Jim Johnson and Barbara Madsen dissented in one area — that the court's ongoing oversight of education spending trespassed on the separation of powers. But the court is not placing itself above the state Legislature, but rather adding strict accountability to a thoughtful ruling.

That means tough cuts and reforms throughout government. Education doesn't escape the challenge.

Reforms that make the K-12 system more efficient and responsible is key. The biggest obstacle in this area has been the Washington Education Association, the teachers union, which has consistently blocked key reforms

Among them:

• The state should consider whether it makes sense for 295 school districts to separately negotiate labor contracts. Unions negotiate in their best interest but the result is expensive contract agreements in tough budget times. These deepen districts' dependence on local levy funds and, for poorer districts, force cutbacks in other areas of education spending.

• A good start to addressing the power imbalance between local districts and the teachers union would be to fine unions that go out on strike. They are not just wasting education dollars, they are breaking state law.

• The Legislature must also stand up to the WEA about health-care costs. The state spends a billion dollars a year on health-care benefits for school employees. A recent state Healthcare Authority report found $109 million a year would be saved by consolidating employees into a single plan. The savings would largely be in administrative costs and insurance commissions. That's 10 percent of health-care costs that could be redirected to kids in the classrooms.

• Lawmakers must prioritize a continued rollout of new, more robust evaluation and professional development for principals and teachers.

• Online learning and technology changes could also produce savings in other areas. Legislators, particularly Democrats who get the most pressure from the teachers union, must push back. The union represents employees; lawmakers must represent all citizens.

The court's ruling shifts the conversation from "should we spend more?" to how we spend what we have. Those expecting a blank check will be disappointed. The task before the Legislature is to pair critical reforms with shrewd investment.

This time the court is watching.

Tomorrow: The Seattle Times editorial board suggests reforms the Legislature should consider as it again tackles its ongoing budget challenges.

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