Court OKs state’s unequal school funding formula
December 7, 2009
By Tim Pfarr
The state Supreme Court unanimously decided Nov. 12 that inequities resulting from state funding formulas don’t violate the state’s constitution.
In the Federal Way School District No. 210 v. State decision, Justice Jim Johnson said, “The Legislature’s use of the staff unit allocation system to fund education with differing salary allocations to school districts with historically disparate average salaries does not violate article IX, section 2, although there remains a slight gap between the highest and lowest salary funding statewide.”Because the decision deals specifically with the state constitution, there is no other appeal option.
“The court’s decision is extremely disappointing after we have worked intensively for six years in the Legislature to build a bipartisan coalition to support reasonable alternative school-funding formulas,” State Rep. Glenn Anderson, R-Fall City, said in a press release. “Our goal has always been, and will continue to be, ensuring a uniform education funding structure for programs, services and staffing.”
The decision overturned King County Superior Court Judge Michael J. Heavey’s 2007 decision, which determined the state’s school funding formula violated the state’s constitution and that the disparate funding violates constitutional equal protection rights of Federal Way’s teachers, students and taxpayers.
The case was originally filed in 2006.
At that time, Federal Way was the seventh largest school district in the state, yet ranked 263rd of 296 districts in dollars-per-student funding from the state, according to the district’s Web site. District officials maintained that if the district had been funded at the same rate as the most well-funded district in the 2006-07 school year, the district would have received approximately $11.5 million more in state funding than it did.
To date, 30 other school districts have signed on in support of the case, but not the Issaquah School District. Issaquah is involved in another lawsuit against the state, regarding special-education funding. However, it did stand to gain from it, had it not been reversed. The Renton School District did not sign on in support of the case either.
“Basically, the lawsuit was filed on behalf of every district in the state to receive equitable rate compensation for its employees, and that includes Issaquah,” said Sara Niegowski, district director of communications. “Not that we lost anything, but we aren’t going to gain anything either, because there was no court decision and now there is no pressure on the Legislature to make these employee salaries equal.”
Had the decision been in Federal Way’s favor, it would have forced the Legislature to change its methodology and pay school districts equally for their employees, Niegowski said. Right now, the system now is arbitrary in determining who gets more for their employees.
At the top of the system is Everett, but for no apparent reason other than being grandfathered in long ago, Niegowski said.
To compete, all other districts are forced to take local levy money to pay comparable salaries.
Had the decision been upheld, Issaquah would have likely seen an additional $4.1 million.
Renton School District Executive Director of Community Relations Randy Matheson said he did not know how much money Renton schools would receive had the decision been upheld, but he said he is disappointed by the court’s decision.
However, Matheson said he is hopeful education will be adequately funded sometime in the near future.
“As long as we’re working with our legislators, there’s always hope,” he said.
The decision leaves little room for second-guessing; all nine justices signed the opinion.
Specifically, the justices said that disparate funding doesn’t constitute a violation of the state’s “ample provision for the education of all children” protections as required under the fourth article in section 1.
“The Legislature has acted well within its constitutional authority and its duty to make ample provision for the education of children, and to provide for a general and uniform system of education under article IX,” Johnson wrote.
Anderson contends that the court’s ruling stalls the momentum to reform basic education funding models within the state in the past few years and still didn’t address the big question: Are school funding formulas rational, so they ensure every school district receives adequate funding to pay for uniform services, programs and staff?
“Allowing the state to be arbitrary is the worst thing the court could have allowed through its ruling,” Anderson said in the release.
As evidence, he cited remediation rates of high school students in math and science in the state’s colleges.
“One would think,” he said, that “would be a signal that irrational funding of the education system has harmed students.”
However, the justices said that the district couldn’t adequately prove that the lack in funding they received compared to other better-funded districts actually showed a lack in students’ achievement as a result. As evidence, Johnson stated the Federal Way students continually score above average on their Washington Assessment of Student Learning scores and continue to improve over time.
In their decision, the justices also said that taxpayer rights to additional taxation had not been violated as citizens in Federal Way had additional recourse. Those wishing to contribute more to the school system could donate their money outside the taxpayer system to the schools without taxing all residents in the district.