State Superintendent sues districts for funding basic education?

It looks like one of those double-take-inducing man-bites-dog stories. The state’s top schools official is suing seven large schools districts for spending money on education?

Randy Dorn, the outgoing Superintendent of Public Instruction, filed suit last week against seven school districts for spending local levy money in impermissible ways. Much of that impermissible spending goes toward teacher salaries through TRI pay, which has developed into a large loophole. Local school administrators acknowledge as much. One told the Columbian, “The bottom line is, what’s stated in the suit is pretty accurate. It’s just that the Legislature hasn’t given us any choice.”

Local levies are supposed to go toward “enrichment” – the extras that a school board decides meet local needs. Those funds are not supposed to be spent on “basic education,” including teacher and administrator salaries. Therein lies the problem.

A problem of convenience
It’s a problem for which state and local leaders own a share of the blame. The state’s great sin has been in underfunding education, as the McCleary decision makes clear, and in not addressing the cost-of-living differences between, say, Bellevue and Prosser when funding teacher salaries. The state also re-created the local spending problem by choosing to raise the caps on local levies rather than fully funding K-12 directly.

Local leaders erred in spending levies in ways they knew aren’t allowed instead of pressing the Legislature to solve the crisis earlier. So the “problem” has been convenient for the Legislature (offloading responsibility for K-12 funding to local districts), convenient for school boards (raising teacher salaries even though the method of doing so is dubious), and convenient for the teachers unions (more money).

The only trouble is, it’s unconstitutional.

A problem re-created by choice
That’s because a central holding of both the 1978 Doran decision and 2012’s McCleary decision is that the unequal funding of schools around the state is profoundly unfair. When the Legislature lifted the caps on local levies, it re-created the problem that Doran corrected and that McCleary is trying to correct again. In the meantime, kids in poorer school districts aren’t receiving the same opportunities as others, just because of their ZIP code. That’s wrong.

Dorn’s lawsuit isn’t about attacking the districts. “I do not fault school districts for doing what they are doing,” he told the Everett Herald. “That is the hand the Legislature has dealt them.” His aim is to put additional pressure on lawmakers to meet McCleary quickly. If the levy spending is declared improper, that will be another spur for legislators to solve the tricky issues – regional pay differences, levy swap, and statewide bargaining.

But the lawsuit is surely giving pause to some you would expect would be cheering any effort for full state funding. When Dorn tried another avenue before his lawsuit – asking for an Attorney General’s Opinion – school administrators were worried it “could create a misleading impression” of “wrong-doing by school district leaders.”

The state teachers union, the WEA, is no doubt concerned too. The TRI system has been its avenue to pay increases. If spending local levy money on salaries is declared illegal, it may spur legislators to act sooner to correct problems, but it will increase uncertainty for the union. In the WEA’s ideal outcome, state funding would increase, local funding wouldn’t be decreased at all (hence the union’s lack of enthusiasm for a levy swap), and bargaining for pay will still happen at the local level. That’s an unlikely outcome.

Reaction to Dorn’s lawsuit has been mixed. It could help settle a vexing, long-developing problem, however, and force the state to finally address fair, equal funding for our schools. If it accomplishes that, it will be worth a little strife and uncertainty.
-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.