Task laid out; get on with it

A suggestion to state leaders contemplating whether to appeal a judge’s ruling Thursday that the state isn’t meeting its constitutional duty to educate its children:

Don’t. You won’t be able to do it with a straight face.

Thirty years after a similar decision was affirmed by the state Supreme Court, the state has failed to provide “ample, stable and dependable” funding to teach its children, according to King County Superior Court Judge John Erlick. His ruling was a victory for a coalition of school districts, parents, teachers and other stakeholders who filed suit against the state in 2007. Petitioners included the Arlington, Edmonds, Lakewood, Marysville, Northshore and Snohomish school districts, and their teacher unions.

Erlick’s finding is hardly a revelation. Cuts made to education to help close recent state budget shortfalls prove that funding is unstable. In most districts, around 20 percent of school budgets are fed by local levies that must be approved by voters, making them undependable. It’s important to understand that levy money no longer is limited to “extras” as it used to be. It pays for true basics, like teachers, books and transportation.

As to what level of funding is ample, Erlick ordered the Legislature to determine that. The expanded definition of basic education lawmakers adopted last year, an action Erlick acknowledged in his lengthy ruling, can serve as a blueprint. Then, Erlick ruled, the state must adopt a realistic way of fully funding basic education, which the state Constitution declares is its “paramount duty.”

A platform for the latter discussion is already in hand. Legislation has been introduced to launch the development of a full and fair school funding plan, based on a five-part proposal by Lake Stevens School Board member David Iseminger. (Read more at tinyurl.com/iseminger.)

Iseminger calls for devoting 50 percent of state revenue growth to basic education, shifting current levy authority to the state — which would result in little or no tax change for districts that already have local levies in place — and taking care of expanding school construction needs.

His plan presents an excellent foundation for what needs to be an expedited discussion. Erlick made clear that he won’t settle for more empty promises. He expects action.

Of course, providing a good education is about more than money; it’s primarily about results, which depend on how money is spent. The state has far to go on that score, too, and its largest teachers union needs to get past its entrenched and outdated opposition to constructive reforms.

For right now, though, the correct response to Erlick’s ruling is for the state to begin fulfilling its constitutional duty, not to waste time defending the indefensible.