11 years ago, a group of public school parents filed suit over state education funding. Yesterday the state Supreme Court finally ended the McCleary case, as it was known, lifting sanctions against the state and completing justices’ oversight.
McCleary dominated state government like no other issue since the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling. Through legislative wrangling, gubernatorial campaigns, contempt rulings and a $100,000-a-day fine, the case hung over everything state government did. It focused the Legislature on K-12 schools, but sometimes to the exclusion of other important issues.
On the ruling’s main point, the court was absolutely correct. The state had offloaded too much of the burden of funding schools to local districts, shortchanging the state’s “paramount duty.” For Olympia, shifting the burden of K-12 costs over the years to districts was politically convenient. It needed to be remedied.
On the decade’s top state issue, McKenna’s idea prevailed
But the solution to the problem was not without controversy. Legislators employed a “levy swap” to raise state property taxes while lowering – and capping – local property taxes. Plaintiffs and the state teachers union, which bankrolled the McCleary suit, opposed this. They wanted higher state and local taxes.
The levy swap solution was fraught with political symbolism as well. When Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna championed the idea in his 2012 campaign, now-Governor Jay Inslee savaged the plan, running attack ads saying McKenna was raising taxes.
After taking office Inslee continued to oppose it, halfheartedly – but the pure logic of the levy swap made it the go-to solution in the end (oh and also, Jay Inslee has proposed raising A TON of different taxes as governor, despite running on a no-new-taxes pledge – so there’s that).
Most everyone glad it’s done, almost no one is satisfied
Now that the case is finally over, few are sad to see it end. State K-12 funding has increased by staggering amounts, the talking points were growing stale, and the Supreme Court justices’ oversight was pushing constitutional boundaries.
Depending on your preferred metaphor, it was time to put the horse out to pasture, stop beating it, or send it to the glue factory. The point is, it was time for the case to conclude. But it’s a conclusion that leaves everyone wishing it had gone a little differently.
Republicans wanted McCleary to foment a carrot-and-stick situation, where new money was approved only with significant reforms and accountability measures in place. But that never happened. K-12 funding has increased, dramatically, but programmatic changes were few and new accountability measures were cast aside.
For Democrats, McCleary was their chance to see their most fervently wished-for policy dream – a state income tax – come true. But try as the Democrats might, a state income tax remained unpopular with voters. In the end, neither the political will nor the votes existed in the Democrats’ legislative caucuses to push for one.
And for the McCleary plaintiffs, they wanted the Supreme Court to go much further. They argued for radical solutions, urging justices to mandate much higher spending – and essentially re-write the state budget for legislators. Their attorney told the court it should invalidate all tax preferences and make the Legislature reauthorize the ones it wanted. That same attorney contended yesterday that the court hasn’t said that the state’s funding level is adequate and that another lawsuit might be filed.
While most view McCleary with at least some disappointment, don’t count the state teachers union among them. The WEA celebrated the long case in a blog post Thursday, and why not? K-12 funding is way up, salaries are higher, and little has been required of teachers in the way of new programs or accountability.
No wonder they’re happy.