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Originally published June 28, 2011 at 8:08 PM | Page modified June 29, 2011 at 11:49 AM

School-funds case elicits questions from justices

Washington Supreme Court justices peppered attorneys with questions and moved the discussion concerning the state's obligation to pay for public-school education in directions neither side expected during a hearing Tuesday.

The Associated Press

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OLYMPIA — Washington Supreme Court justices peppered attorneys with questions and moved the discussion concerning the state's obligation to pay for public-school education in directions neither side expected during a hearing Tuesday.

"It just means I'm a bad guesser," said Thomas Ahearne, who represents a coalition of school districts, parents, teachers and community groups.

Ahearne's group won the lawsuit in King County Superior Court in February 2010, where Judge John Erlick ruled the state was violating the state constitution by not fully paying for basic education.

The state appealed, saying Erlick reached beyond the high court's previous ruling on this issue in 1978.

Many of the questions from the justices Tuesday concerned whether the Legislature had made any progress lately in improving the way the state pays for basic education.

Assistant Attorney General Bill Clark says lawmakers have made a lot of progress in reform efforts. But Ahearne says the work of the Legislature has been all talk and studies but no action involving money.

Justice Debra L. Stephens, whose history of public service includes time on her local school board, asked pointed questions of both lawyers.

She wanted to know how Clark could say that the state has not cut basic education when teacher salaries, training days and other classroom expenses were cut by the 2011 Legislature.

"We don't concede that those are cuts to basic education," Clark said.

They spent a lot of time talking about local levies and whether it would make enough difference if all the local tax money was replaced with state dollars.

Clark argued that local school districts use levy money to pay for expenses beyond basic education, for providing enhancements including expenses like those incurred by football teams.

Ahearne said there's a lot of evidence to the contrary and some districts would be forced to shut down schools without levy dollars. He said the state hasn't proved that all levy dollars are used for "fluff."

Justice Gerry Alexander kept coming back to this issue, saying too much of the cost of education is paid for by levies, and he emphasized that wasn't fair because for some districts raising local dollars is difficult if not impossible.

Justice Tom Chambers agreed.

"There's been no progress in that regard," Chambers said, referring back to the Supreme Court's 1978 decision on a similar case, when it ordered the Legislature to address the issue of school levies paying too much of the cost of education. None of the current justices served on the Supreme Court when that decision was handed down, but some were working as lower court judges or attorneys at that time.

Washington uses sales, business and state property taxes to pay about 72 percent of what it costs to educate Washington's 1 million school children in kindergarten through 12th grade. An additional 16 percent comes from local levies and 9 percent comes from federal dollars, primarily for education of special-needs children. About 41 percent of the state's general fund is allocated for K-12 public education.

The 16 percent figure is a statewide average for school levies, and some districts raise more than 20 percent while others raise no local dollars, Clark explained.

Erlick's ruling said the state doesn't provide enough money to give every child a chance to meet the state's essential learning requirements. Instead, the state depends on funding formulas that don't correlate with the actual cost to teach the state's children, he wrote.

Clark argued that Erlick's ruling went beyond the Supreme Court's 1978 decision on basic education funding and focused too much on outcomes.

"There cannot be a constitutional requirement that all children succeed," he said.

Alexander questioned whether there was anything the Legislature could do to make everyone happy about school funding and prevent future lawsuits like this one.

The Supreme Court is expected to spend months thinking about the case before ruling.

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