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Washington Court Issues Strong Adequacy Ruling

Acknowledging “the deep financial crisis that the State currently faces,” the Superior Court of the State of Washington, King County, nevertheless held in a strongly worded 75 page decision that making ample provision for the education of all children residing in its border is the state’s “paramount duty.” McCleary v. State. The court held that the state’s current state aid system is “not currently correlated to what it actually costs to operate this State’s public schools” and that the system, therefore, is unconstitutional.

In his decision, Judge John P. Erlick reviewed in detail the constitutional concept of “education,” which he emphasized means “the basic knowledge and skills needed to compete in today’s economy and meaningfully participate in this State’s democracy.” He explained that this constitutional concept encompasses both the detailed substantive skills that the state Supreme Court had described in its 1978 adequacy decision, Seattle Sch. Dist. no. 1 v. State, and the basic knowledge and skills the State had articulated in its Basic Education Act and in the Essential Academic Learning requirements that have been adopted since that time.

The Court recognized the significant work recently done by a legislative task force that developed new staffing models, teacher qualifications and accountability requirements, and recommended substantial increases in state funding to pay for these reforms. Although the legislature had approved most of the Task Force recommendations, it established a nine-year time table for full implementation of the reforms, and did not include full funding levels for the provision of mandated basic education in the legislation. Noting that future legislatures are not bound by the current legislature’s stated intent, the Court held that “the State cannot avoid the question of whether it is currently complying with its legal duty under Article IX, § 1 by stating its intent to correct a legal violation sometime in the future.”

The remedy the court ordered requires the legislature to “ proceed with real and measurable progress to,,, 1) establish the actual cost of amply providing all Washington children with the education mandated by this court’s interpretation of Article IX, §1, and (2) to establish how the …State will fully fund that actual cost with stable and dependable State sources.”

Kansas Plaintiffs Challenge Constitutionality of Budget Cuts; State Supreme Court Refuses to Re-open Montoy School Finance Litigation

In the first broad-based challenge to the constitutionality of budget cuts stemming from the current recession, lawyers for education advocates in Kansas last month filed a motion with the Court to re-open Montoy v. State of Kansas, a school finance lawsuit that led to the adoption of a new state funding formula in 2006 and substantial increases in state funding for education. The State Supreme Court had terminated jurisdiction over the case at that time.

In their petition, the plaintiffs—Salina Unified School District 305, Dodge City Unified School District 443 and Schools for Fair Funding, Inc., a coalition of 74 school districts—alleged that the substantial funding reductions in state aid to Kansas’ school districts over the past year violate the court’s prior orders in the Montoy case and Article VI, § 6 of the Kansas constitution, which mandates “suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.” Plaintiffs alleged that the legislature has continued a pattern of tax cuts and budget decreases—including five cuts last year that have effectively undermined any gains from the litigation—without considering “the actual costs of providing an adequate education.”

On February 12, the Kansas Supreme Court denied the motion to re-open. Chief Justice Robert E. Davis’ opinion for the court held that because re-opening an appeal that has been dismissed disturbs the finality of a judgment, the judiciary should exercise its power to re-open a case only “in extraordinary circumstances” and “as the last resort.” Justice Davis also alluded to other potential issues, including whether the original plaintiff, who may have graduated from school at this point, still had standing and whether all of the school districts that had participated in the original case would continue in future litigation. Additionally, Chief Justice Davis questioned the petitioners’ claim that re-opening the case would promote “judicial efficiency.” Their request for remand to the district court would require the plaintiffs to “go through essentially the same process as a new case: the filing of an amended petition…, discovery and trial.”

Plaintiffs’ attorneys said that they intend to proceed with a new suit. New procedural requirements adopted in response to the Montoy case will now require that Schools for Fair Funding prepare and file a notice with the Kansas House and Senate, setting out the particulars of the planned lawsuit. Then plaintiffs must wait 120 days before filing the case. A three-judge panel would then decide where the case would be tried. In addition to these procedural obstacles, plaintiffs may also face another potential hurdle: a bill introduced in the legislature that appears to have wide support among Republican legislators who control both houses of the legislature would prohibit groups suing the state or legislature from using taxpayer money to support their litigation.

New Case Filed in Rhode Island

Since the Rhode Island Supreme Court dismissed plaintiffs’ complaint in City of Pawtucket v. Sundlun, fifteen years ago, inequities and inadequacies in the State’s funding system have persisted. In a forceful 49 page petition, the school committees, superintendent of schools and a number of students and parents in the cities of Woonsocket and Pawtucket have initiated a suit against Rhode Island’s governor and legislative leaders.

In Sundlun, although the trial court had found the existing education finance system inequitable and inadequate, the state Supreme Court reversed and dismissed the claims on justiciability grounds, saying that the state constitution vested broad discretion in the legislature to promote education and that there were no “judicially manageable standards” for shaping a workable remedy for the alleged constitutional violations. Steve Robinson, the attorney for the plaintiffs in the present case, who also was also plaintiffs’ attorney in the earlier case, constructed a meticulously documented petition which directly responds to the Supreme Court’s justiciability concerns. Specifically, the petition alleges that over the past 15 years, the state’s General Assembly and the state education department, have adopted detailed academic standards and have imposed numerous obligations on local school districts to provide meaningful educational opportunities for all students, but that they have failed to provide adequate or equitable funding to allow the districts to carry out these obligations. The petition also cites numerous state statutes and regulations, and legislatively-commissioned studies that provide concrete standards and mechanisms for remedying these inadequacies and inequities.