An area of agreement between the State and plaintiffs in the McCleary case

On August 30, plaintiffs in the McCleary case submitted their post-budget filing to the Supreme Court, and four amicus briefs were filed by other groups. (I wrote about these filings here.)

The State has now responded to them all, and the plaintiffs have responded to the four amicus briefs. Yesterday, the Supreme Court announced that there will be oral argument in the case on October 24.

The new filings from the State and plaintiffs largely tread familiar ground. Interestingly, though, there’s one point on which the State and plaintiffs agree: That the Washington Budget & Policy Center’s (WBPC) argument that the property tax is not dependable and regular if the revenue growth limit is in place is irrelevant.

According to the State, this argument assumes that “the state property tax is the sole—or at least primary—revenue source for K–12 schools. It is neither. It is just one among many revenue streams that are placed in the State’s general fund, from which most K–12 school funding is drawn.” Indeed, while the state property tax is dedicated to public schools, it brings in only about $2 billion a year. State spending on public schools this fiscal year is $10 billion. [Update: I should note that the education funding bill does increase the state property tax, but it still won't reach anywhere close to $10 billion a year.]

Similarly, plaintiffs argue that the fact that the growth limit is reinstated in 2022 is

. . . legally irrelevant—for the State property tax is not the only funding source for the State’s basic education program. The undeniable fiscal reality is that the State’s General Fund regularly and dependably draws more than enough tax revenue to amply fund the actual cost of fully implementing the State’s basic education program.

(Emphasis in original.)

Further, the State notes, “WBPC assumes the Legislature will take no action in response if state revenue becomes insufficient to support the service levels enacted in EHB 2242.” That, the state suggests, is why we have new budgets every two years and supplemental budgets in between. This may all be moot, though. The State says, “The Court does not resolve issues raised only by amici.”

Aside from the growth limit issue, plaintiffs agree with everything argued in the amicus briefs.

It seems like the State has lost some patience with plaintiffs/amici. The State notes that when plaintiffs and amici say that actual costs to districts aren’t funded, they are relying on press releases and media reports. (It chides them several times for this reliance.) Instead, the figures from OSPI and legislative staff should be used: “Unless some error is demonstrated in [the state’s] projections (and none has been alleged, much less demonstrated, by Plaintiffs or Amici), those projections should be accepted as accurate.”

The State also notes that plaintiffs’ argument is based on the “premise that the ‘actual cost’ of basic education is defined by school districts’ expenditures and must be funded without constraint by the State.” Further, “In their view, no funding allocation model could be constitutionally valid because any such model necessarily imposes constraints on local spending. Plaintiffs want reimbursement, not allocation.” That is, “Under their model, the State would be obligated to pay whatever amount of money each of the 295 independent school districts has expended. That is not a model for financial or educational accountability, and it has not been mandated by the Court.” Indeed, “The State is unaware of any governmental funding program that does not cap or otherwise constrain reimbursement.”

Finally, here’s the State on why levy reform was important:

As noted above, over-reliance on excess levies masked State underfunding for years so it is entirely reasonable and unsurprising that the Legislature would attempt to lessen the risk of falling into noncompliance again. Levy reform, increased accountability measures, and built-in review of various aspects of the funding model all contribute to that attempt. They also provide timely information about how well the funding model is meeting the needs of school districts and school children. It is curious that Plaintiffs and Amici would oppose such measures.

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