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Originally published Tuesday, October 25, 2011 at 3:46 PM

Guest columnist

Washington Supreme Court should rule soon on education-funding lawsuit

With more state budget-cutting in the offing, Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn urges the state Supreme Court to rule soon in the case of McCleary v. Washington. Some clarity on the state's education obligations are needed before the Legislature convenes.

Special to The Times

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A CASE before the Washington State Supreme Court, McCleary v. Washington, is crucial to the future of education funding. For that reason, the high court needs to rule before the Legislature convenes Jan. 9.

A decision before that date will put necessary pressure on the Legislature regarding potential cuts to education. It also will clarify what is becoming an increasingly unclear picture on how education is funded.

At issue is the first section of Article IX of our state Constitution: "It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex."

Those words are simple and profound and elevate education to the height it deserves. What's more, adding the first sentence from Section 2 — "The legislature shall provide for a general and uniform system of public schools" — results in one of the strongest constitutions in the U.S. in terms of the importance of education.

The meaning of Article IX, Section I, has been debated for many years. In the 1970s and '80s, a series of court cases and legislative actions defined what we now know as basic education. To satisfy the "ample provision" obligation, it was determined that any basic-education program must be provided for by the state. In other words, the state guaranteed a basic education to all its citizens. Anything beyond that wasn't required funding.

Fast-forward 25 years. In 2007, a group of parents and organizations got together and sued the state in McCleary, essentially arguing that the state wasn't meeting its constitutional duty.

In February 2010, King County Superior Court Judge John Erlick agreed with the plaintiffs. "State funding is not ample, it is not stable, and it is not dependable," he wrote in his decision. That underfunding has real consequences: our "public schools are failing to equip all children ... with the basic knowledge and skills mandated by this State's minimum education standards."

As the state's chief school officer and someone who has been involved in education for more than 30 years, I also agree with the plaintiffs. For three years, districts have had to make up the slack caused by budget cuts at the state level. Continued cuts will result in larger classes and fewer services for students who struggle.

This year we saw extended graduation rates rise to more than 80 percent. Scores on statewide math tests continue to encourage us. But those gains will evaporate if education is cut more.

I understand that the citizens of our state deserve a reasoned and informed decision on a crucial topic, and that arriving at that decision — whatever it is — will take time for the high court. I only ask that a decision be reached in time for the 2012 Legislature so its budget decisions are consistent with the constitution and with state laws.

Without a decision, I fear we may proceed in a manner that puts the state in a worse position in terms of its compliance with the law. Worse than that, I fear that the students of our state will suffer.

Randy Dorn is the Washington state superintendent of public instruction.

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