McCleary comes to a close: Levy swap prevails, funding now fairer

What a long, strange journey it has been. 11 years after it was filed, the McCleary education funding case wound to a close this week. Since the state Supreme Court first ruled on the case in 2012, it has been the Sword of Damocles dangling over state government.

I did not agree with the court’s handling of this case at every stage, but that doesn’t change the fact that McCleary was necessary. The state had absolutely shirked its paramount duty to K-12 schools, happily handing off too much responsibility for funding to local districts.

That led to the state’s key flaw that McCleary exposed. As local districts, with their vast disparities in property wealth, passed higher levies to fill in the gaps, K-12 funding became more and more unequal. The difference between the have and have-not districts was stark.

About that levy swap…
The court’s ruling in 2012 was really just common sense. The Democrats who dominated Olympia for decades had been slowly shifting the state budget away from schools funding and toward more social services and other spending. The price to be paid was greater reliance on local funding for schools and the wider inequality that stemmed from that.

The judicial branch finally called them on it. The justices ruled K-12 funding must be ample, equal, and stable. A system that relies heavily on local funding cannot be equal.

It does make me chuckle that the chosen solution to that problem is a “levy swap,” which I supported in 2012 and Jay Inslee slammed me for. His attack ads were disingenuous and cynical – but far worse, he never proposed an alternate solution during the campaign.

The levy swap was employed because it was the cleanest, most logical solution to the problem. The Supreme Court has now signed off on it.

McCleary’s upside: It forced changes that made schools funding more equitable around the state. The new funding methods are fairer and will help reduce the gap between rich and poor districts.

The downside: The case did not produce significant reforms or accountability. Now that McCleary is finally concluded, legislators should return to working on new ways to push for innovations in our system.

Time for a break from lawsuit-driven change
It’s important to remember that the Legislature essentially set itself up for the court’s 2012 ruling. Lawmakers redefined basic education and then didn’t fund it. This was an intentional strategy, one that relied on the court to hold the Legislature’s feet to the fire.

The plaintiffs’ funder, the state teachers union, is already looking to that same playbook for its next lawsuit. It wants friendly state officials to set up a new “class size work group” to make recommendations (gee, wonder what those will be). Those recommendations become new mandates, which the union can then go to the courts to enforce.

Many are pontificating that, though McCleary is now done, the need to keep improving our schools is not. That’s true – and the proper place for those decisions is the Legislative Building, not the Temple of Justice.
-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.