McCleary case: One chart explains it all

By now you’ve read many posts here at Smarter Government Washington on the McCleary education funding lawsuit. It is without question the biggest issue bedeviling state government in recent years, one focused on K-12 education as the state’s paramount duty but with potential impacts for all other areas of the state’s General Fund budget.

The state Supreme Court is displeased with the Legislature’s latest status report in the case, issuing a strongly-worded unanimous response two weeks ago that previews some serious potential remedies the court could impose. Writers on this site have weighed in with differing opinions on the best way for the court to respond going forward.

As the debates about McCleary roil, it’s useful to remember how the state got itself into a situation like this in the first place, with the state Supreme Court ordering it to do what it’s already supposed to do: fully fund our schools because they are our “paramount duty” under the state constitution.

Alligator chart

As this chart, which runs through the last budget cycle, shows us, over the course of three decades non-education spending far outpaced funding for schools. When Washington’s economy boomed, the gap only got wider. Politicians in Olympia simply prioritized other spending ahead of education.

The gap didn’t develop because of transportation mega-projects or new state buildings –those are funded in separate budgets. In Olympia during that time, social services and general government came first. One party dominated Olympia in those three decades, and it funded what it cares about most. Clearly that wasn’t our schools.

Thankfully, the Legislature finally reversed that trend. In the current budget cycle, 2/3 of new state spending went to education, turning around the trend that put the state on the losing side of the McCleary case. Not only is it a budget that put education first after years of empty rhetoric on that topic, but it was the most bipartisan, widely supported budget seen in Olympia in years.

A lot of the credit for that goes to Sen. Andy Hill, the Senate’s budget writer from the Majority Coalition Caucus. Hill drew his line in the sand – education first – and wrote a state budget that matched rhetoric and action, for once. It’s one reason we named him a Smarter Government “Bright Light.”

McCleary will continue to be the top issue facing state government. The more legislators match their near-unanimous agreement that education comes first with budgets that actually put it first – and the more members of the public that tell their legislators to do exactly that – the sooner we’ll see fully-funded K-12 schools in our state.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.