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Originally published October 22, 2009 at 12:10 AM | Page modified October 22, 2009 at 10:34 AM

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School-funding trial near end

A King County Superior Court judge heard closing arguments Wednesday in a trial to determine whether the state is adequately paying for public education. Judge John Erlick told lawyers his task is neither easy nor entirely clear and that he expects to take about three months to make his ruling in the bench trial.

The Associated Press

A King County Superior Court judge heard closing arguments Wednesday in a trial to determine whether the state is adequately paying for public education.

Judge John Erlick told lawyers his task is neither easy nor entirely clear and that he expects to take about three months to make his ruling in the bench trial.

Since the end of August, Erlick has heard from about 30 witnesses and read through pages of depositions from school superintendents, state officials, lawmakers and education-finance experts.

A coalition of school districts, parents, teachers and community groups want him to order the state to fully fund the cost of basic education. The state says it is already doing so.

The case is in many ways a continuation of a lawsuit decided by the state Supreme Court 30 years ago. The ruling in Seattle School District v. State said Washington must fully pay for its definition of basic education.

Thomas Ahearne, the attorney representing the coalition, argued the state has dragged its feet for decades and has never met the requirements set out in the previous lawsuit.

Assistant Attorney General Bill Clark said the Legislature has made a lot of progress over the years and is ready to take another big step in amply providing for basic education. He urged the judge to give the Legislature time to finish its education-reform efforts.

The judge asked a lot of questions of both attorneys on Wednesday, pushing Ahearne especially to explain what he could rule that doesn't mirror the decision in the Seattle School District case.

Erlick said he may call the attorneys back during his decision process if he has further questions, something the judge said would be extremely rare for him to do.

The 2009 Legislature's efforts to change the way the state pays for K-12 education was mentioned repeatedly by both sides as a possible part of the solution, but Ahearne emphasized that the state has made a lot of promises over the years and has not always followed through.

"What the state is asking this court to do is close its eyes to the real world," Ahearne said.

He said that a law professor once told him the two most dangerous words in the English language are "trust us," and that those words are especially dangerous when said by government.

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Clark said Ahearne did not present the evidence necessary to prove its case. He said the district superintendents who testified that their schools were not adequately supported had no proof that this was true.

The state's witnesses testified that more money does not necessarily translate into improved student performance. And the system cannot guarantee that students will succeed; it can only give them the tools.

Clark emphasized that the Legislature has the exclusive right to implement state law and to decide how it would be implemented. He questioned what possible ruling Erlick could make other than to say keep doing what you're doing.

"The problem with this lawsuit it was filed in 2007, events have overtaken it and the remedy is moot," Clark said.

Before dropping his gavel and declaring the trial finished, Erlick complimented both attorneys for the way they were both passionate in their views but respectful toward each other and the court.

"Your conduct is one of the best examples I've ever seen," Erlick said.

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