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Lawsuit aims to force state to boost money for education

School-district officials, union leaders and civic activists are poised to file the most sweeping lawsuit against the state of Washington…

January 5, 2007

By Alex Fryer

School-district officials, union leaders and civic activists are poised to file the most sweeping lawsuit against the state of Washington over education spending in three decades.

The parties will meet today to discuss plans for the suit, which is expected to be filed next week. It will ask a court to define basic education and rule whether legislators have abided by the state constitution, which calls for the state to make education its “paramount duty.”

The suit will also ask a judge to order the state to increase funding, although it won’t seek a specific amount.

While the Federal Way School District filed its own, similar lawsuit in November, the group backing the new effort boasts some of the biggest players in the state education system.

Leading the litigation is the 2-year-old Network for Excellence in Washington Schools, a group of nine districts that includes Seattle, Bellevue and Snohomish. The Washington Education Association — the state’s largest teachers union — along with the Urban

League of Metropolitan Seattle and the League of Women Voters are also plaintiffs, and additional districts are expected to join during today’s meeting.

A Census Bureau report last year ranked Washington among the bottom third of states in per-student spending. Washington school districts rely heavily on state money: In Seattle, for example, state dollars account for about 58 percent of the district’s operating revenue.

The lawsuit would come at a politically delicate time. The Legislature convenes Monday, and Gov. Christine Gregoire recently announced a two-year budget that included $12.3 billion for K-12 education, roughly 40 percent of her proposed general fund.

Members of the network said they supported the governor’s education agenda, but her effort, called “Washington Learns,” wasn’t enough to resolve long-standing complaints that state schools lack money.

Last month, the group voted to proceed with a lawsuit. While legal action could still be called off, the meeting today at WEA headquarters in Federal Way will likely focus on getting more districts on board and making sure the members present a united platform when the suit is filed, said Mike Blair, superintendent of Chimacum School District in Jefferson County and leader of the network.

On Thursday, the network activated a new Web site.

Seattle schools Superintendent Raj Manhas said going to court presented little risk.

“Any lawsuit creates feelings of ‘Why can’t we figure this out?’ ” he said. “If this pressure helps solve this problem of public education, then any downside this lawsuit has won’t be too great.”

Around the country, 45 states have experienced similar lawsuits. In most cases filed since the 1980s, the plaintiffs won, and the state government was forced by court order to do something about education, said Molly Hunter, managing director of the National Access Network at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York.

The lawsuits are fairly similar, alleging that educational funding is inadequate and violates guarantees in state constitutions. Washington put even greater emphasis on education than many other states by declaring it the state’s “paramount duty,” Hunter said.

One reason states often lose such lawsuits can be tied to educational standards established by the states and high-stakes tests such as the Washington Assessment of Student Learning. Such standards generate lots of data about test scores and academic achievement that can later be used in court.

Some cases take weeks in court and, if plaintiffs win, the legislative remedy can come quickly. In other cases, legal wrangling drags on with governors and legislators arguing with judges over how much of their budget should be devoted to education.

Seattle’s experience with such lawsuits began in 1976, when city voters rejected two levies, and the district was forced to slash expenses and lay off teachers. To resolve its money troubles, the district filed a lawsuit citing the same “paramount duty” clause in the state constitution.

A judge agreed, saying districts were too dependent on local levies. The state was forced to pick up a greater share of school-district budgets, but there was a downside: The Legislature capped district levies, so Seattle could no longer tap its big tax base as needed. Sales-tax dollars from local skyscrapers and shopping centers were siphoned away to fund poorer parts of the state.

“We won that lawsuit, but Seattle lost,” said David Moberly, who was Seattle’s superintendent at the time and now lives part-time in Palm Desert, Calif. “For the Seattle School District, it was a bummer.”

The situation may be different now, but there are still pitfalls, he said, arguing that court control over government spending is tricky. Moberly said the state balances too many competing responsibilities and economic uncertainties to mandate multibillion-dollar spending on any one thing.

“You got a surplus now, but economies go up and down,” he said. “You are going to superimpose on the Legislature that you have to spend X amount of dollars on education — they are going to cut from highways and social services.”

Lars Erickson, a Gregoire spokesman, said the Governor’s Office does not comment on pending litigation. In general, though, lawmakers do not support efforts that seek to transfer budget writing from government to the courts.

Blair, the network’s leader, hoped to reassure the political establishment that they all want the same thing.

“We’re not looking to make history. We’re not trying to embarrass anybody,” Blair said. “We’re just looking to help some kids.”