Legislature, not the courts, should set school funding

Richard S. Davis

Judges shouldn’t write the state school budget. We elect legislators and governors to do that. Yet backers of increased K-12 spending across the country have repeatedly sought to leverage vague constitutional promises to support so-called “adequacy litigation” in their quest for more money. The suits ask judges to step into the role of the Legislature and spend taxpayer money, without the hassles of voter accountability or the pressure to balance competing budget demands.

These “just spend it” cases result in lousy public policy: They violate the separation of powers, rest on – at best – shaky science, and even fail to put more long-term money into the classroom. Regardless, proponents still pound on courthouse doors.

Last January, a coalition including the Washington Education Association, the Seattle Urban League, the state PTSA and a bunch of other folks went to court demanding that the state make “ample provision” for education. Their hook is Article IX, Section 1 of the Washington Constitution, which reads: “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.”

While the Pledge of Allegiance may have disappeared from many classrooms, activists intone “paramount duty” like a mantra, hoping repetition will bring about the legislative equivalent of harmonic convergence and showers of cash will descend. This year, they did pretty well, with school spending climbing about $1.8 billion. Gov. Chris Gregoire, a zealous advocate, calls it an increase of $900 per public school student.

But not content to trust the governor and Legislature, the coalition rushed to court seeking more money even before lawmakers adopted a budget.

How much more? Well, they don’t say. They want the state to figure it out. Getting to that number has created a highly lucrative market niche for the consultants hired to produce the studies.

Not surprisingly, the $900 per pupil the Legislature provided falls far short of what the teachers’ union considers ample. In a study they released in January, they determined that adequate funding would require an increase of $3,613 per pupil, up 45 percent from 2004-2005 spending of $8,065. Not exactly spare change. And, of course, finding the additional billions would require either massive cuts in other state programs or highly unpopular tax increases.

Too high? Here’s another choice. Gov. Gregoire’s Washington Learns commission hired Picus and Associates, led by Lawrence Picus and Allan Odden, a pair of professors who have carved out a consulting niche helping groups put a dollar figure on education. In the current issue of Education Next, economist Eric Hanushek estimates their recommendations would increase average spending by $1,760 to $2,760 per student, a bump of 23 to 35 percent. Again, billions of new spending in a budget trending toward red ink.

So: $900, $2,760, or $3,610 how much is enough? It’s a trick question. There’s never enough. It all depends on what ample means, and it’s a term as inflatable as the balloons in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

Of course, the numbers don’t really mean anything. As Hanushek concludes: “Few people care about the ‘studies’ on which consultants base their reports, or even their validity … Clients simply want a requisite amount of scientific aura around the number that will become the rallying flag for political and legal actions.” The “aura” doesn’t even rise to the level of pseudo-science.

Hanushek’s own highly respected research has found “no proven, scientific connection between poor student performance and funding levels provided,” as the attorney general points out in his response to the lawsuit. Regardless, our public school students “rank very high” in national comparisons.

Finally, according to a Tax Foundation report released last week, adequacy lawsuits generally fail to produce long-term increases in school spending. After a one-time bump, budgets flatten out, often showing slower growth following the court decision than pre-litigation trends would have predicted.

Fortunately, common sense seems to be making a comeback. Courts in several states – New York, Texas and Massachusetts in the last two years – have prudently declined invitations to usurp legislative budget authority.

No one would argue that all’s well with Washington’s public schools. But lawsuits won’t make things better. The court should let the Legislature do its job.

Richard S. Davis, vice president-communications of the Association of Washington Business, writes every other Wednesday. His columns do not necessarily reflect the views of AWB. Write Davis at richardd@awb.org or Association of Washington Business, P.O. Box 658, 1414 Cherry Street SE, Olympia, WA 98507-0658.