Education funding: How judge's ruling affects Federal Way schools

The Federal Way School District was part of a victory in court in the fight for adequate education funding.

A lawsuit was brought by the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools (NEWS). Federal Way is not a plaintiff in this recent lawsuit; it is only a member of the NEWS organization, along with large school districts including Seattle, Bellevue and Kent.

The Federal Way School Board voted on Oct. 14, 2008, to support the lawsuit.

On Feb. 4, King County Superior Court Judge John Erlick ruled that the state Legislature is not fulfilling its constitutional duty to fully fund basic education.

In his 78-page ruling in McCleary et al v. State of Washington, Erlick ruled that the word "paramount" in Article IX, Section 1 of the Constitution means “preeminent, supreme and more important than all others” and that funding K-12 education is “the state’s first and highest priority before any other state programs or operations.”

NEWS lawsuit

The lawsuit was brought by the McCleary family of Jefferson County, the Venema family of Snohomish County and the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools, a coalition of more than 75 school districts, statewide civic organizations and community groups, education associations, parents and teachers.

Erlick's decision is similar to a decision by the state Supreme Court in 1978. In Seattle School District v. State of Washington, the state's high court ruled that a school district's reliance on special excess levy funding violated the state’s “paramount duty to...make ample provision for the education of all children.”

State basic education funding covers the cost of school facilities as well as half the cost of classroom teachers and classroom teaching materials. The remaining funds for teachers and teaching materials must come from other school district funding sources.

An ongoing fight

The word "paramount" has become something of a battle cry for Federal Way schools. The district said that word proved the point in its own legal cases over funding.

Superintendent Tom Murphy and others have stressed that the funding system was unconstitutional because "it is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders," according the state constitution, article IX section 1.

The district won its fair funding case at the district court level. However, the decision was ultimately overturned by the State Supreme Court last fall.

"The children of Federal Way who have suffered with unequal treatment will apparently suffer longer," Murphy said of the result. "I feel very bad for our children."

Financial costs

The cost for Federal Way to participate in the NEWS lawsuit is estimated to be around $30,000. The board voted to authorize a maximum of $15,000 per year for the two years it was expected to take for the lawsuit.

Financially, the district has made out fairly well in previous lawsuits. Although the district did ultimately lose its special education funding lawsuit, the state did make changes in the funding formula as a result, which brought in more funding. The fair funding lawsuit is still being looked at by the State Supreme Court, but changes have brought in more funding to the district.

State funding has improved as a result of those lawsuits, netting the district an additional $4.6 million over four years. The district had spent $700,000 on litigation costs in the two lawsuits by last fall.

Same goals, different tactics

The main difference in the fair funding lawsuit and the NEWS case: The NEWS lawsuit is about whether the state provides enough funding, the sample referred to in the state constitution, to educate children. The fair funding lawsuit filed by Federal Way was about how school funding is apportioned by the state. It challenged whether funding was constitutional, particularly how salaries are paid in each district.

The Federal Way lawsuit did not address the issue of whether the state provides enough funding to schools overall, only how the funding provided is divided up.

The NEWS lawsuit was first brought forth by the Chimacum School District in January 2007.

Since then, others have quickly jumped on board with the district.

Legislature takes notice

In light of Federal Way's lawsuits and the NEWS lawsuit, things are beginning to change down in Olympia. Last year, the Legislature approved House Bill 2261, which was co-sponsored by State Rep. Skip Priest from Federal Way. The bill commits to fully funding education by 2016.

"Judge Erlick made a compelling and thoughtful case that confirms what many of us already knew — it is time for the governor and Legislature to quit talking and take action," Priest said. "The ruling against the state is a signal that reaffirms education is the 'paramount duty' of the state as outlined in Article IX of Washington State's Constitution."

"I believe 'all means all' when it comes to educating our children," Priest added. "The judge was right that we have studied this issue to death while children's lives were held in the balance. There is now no clearer charge for the governor and Legislature to create a thoughtful and research-based approach that meets the needs of our children and fulfills our constitutional mandate."

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