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Dorn’s understanding of McCleary decision incorrect

GUEST COLUMN

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Liv Finne

On March 18, Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn sent out a statement disputing the Washington Policy Center’s analysis of the 2012 Supreme Court McCleary v. State of Washington decision.

Our analysis, citing the 79-page court decision, showed that in addition to funding, the court ruled public schools require fundamental improvements in the way dollars are spent. Superintendent Dorn disagrees.  He says the McCleary decision only requires the state to spend more money to an unreformed K-12 system of schools.

Superintendent Dorn’s understanding of the McCleary decision, that it is only about money and not about funding and reform, is incorrect.

Superintendent Dorn wants to increase sales and property taxes by $7.5 billion. He seeks to raise taxes to increase spending on schools from $15.2 billion to $22.9 billion by 2019-21, an increase of 49 percent, saying this is required by the McCleary decision.

The Washington Policy Center evaluated the impact of Superintendent Dorn’s proposed taxes and published this study: “Economic model shows Superintendent Dorn’s proposed tax increases would cost 18,500 jobs.”

Superintendent Dorn disputes the findings of the Washington Policy Center’s McCleary analysis. The Washington Police Center’s answers to Superintendent Dorn’s contentions appear below.

Claim: Superintendent Dorn says, “The writer, Liv Finne, appears to believe that the Supreme Court has ordered the Washington state legislature to reform our state’s program of basic education. The Supreme Court has done no such thing.”

Response: This claim is incorrect.

The McCleary decision is an effort to achieve better public education for children, and it is about more than just money. The McCleary decision describes at length Washington’s failed effort to reform and improve public schools between 1978 to 2009 (see pages four through 69). The judges express genuine concern for helping children learn in Washington’s schools.

For example, on page 23, the judges described the sobering findings of Gov. Gregoire’s Washington Learns Commission: “At the same time, the report [Washington Learns] noted several troubling statistics about the state of the school system in Washington. Fewer than 50 percent of children entered kindergarten ready to learn. Only 74 percent of ninth graders graduated from high school with their peers. And younger workers were less educated than their older counterparts.”

On page 69 in the court’s ruling, the judges conclude the state has failed to meet its constitutional obligation to amply fund the schools. Then they say:

“We do not believe this conclusion comes as a surprise. Rather, the evidence in this case confirms what many educational experts and observers have long recognized: fundamental reforms are needed for Washington to meet its constitutional obligation to its students. Pouring more money into an outmoded system will not succeed. We turn then to the more difficult issue: what remedy this court should employ to ensure that the State complies with its article IX, section I duty.”

Superintendent Dorn ignores the plain meaning of the ruling in saying the McCleary decision does not require fundamental reforms to improve the schools. The judges are expressing a widely-held belief - that simply pouring more money into an unreformed school system will not help children learn better, because that has been tried before.

Claim #2: Superintendent Dorn says, “The state must fund the educational program already in law via ESHB 2261.”

Response: This statement is inaccurate. The judges mention ESHB 2261 as one promising reform, not as required funding: 

“The legislature recently enacted a promising reform package under ESHB 2261, which if fully funded, will remedy deficiencies in the K-12 funding system,” wrote the judges.

They cite ESHB 2261 positively, if the legislature decides to fund this law.  The McCleary decision does not order the funding of ESHB 2261. Superintendent Dorn avoids the key holding of the McCleary decision:

“This court defers to the legislature’s chosen means of discharging its Article X, Section I duty.…”

The judges ruled the state constitution requires the legislature to fund the program of basic education (see pages 40-57 of their ruling). This means the legislature has the duty under the constitution to define the program of basic education and to fund it.

The legislature can certainly decide not to fund ESHB 2261. This five-year-old bill, passed when only one party controlled the state legislature, is unlikely to provide better schools for children. In fact, the student learning gains promised by professors Picus and Odden, whose research is the foundation for ESHB 2261, are so exaggerated that Eric Hanushek from Stanford University’s Hoover Institution says they are the “stuff of science fiction novels.”

Professor Hanushek’s analysis of Washington’s billion dollar spending plan ends with this warning to policymakers:

“But pity the poor states that actually implement the Picus and Odden plan. They are sure to be disappointed by the results, and most taxpayers (those who do not work for the schools) will be noticeably poorer.”

Conclusion: Superintendent Dorn wants $7.5 billion in higher taxes to devote more money to education. His regressive sales tax increase would fall hardest on the poor, and his property tax increase would harm the elderly and families living on fixed incomes. In defending an unreformed system, he wants to raise regressive taxes to put more money into a status quo schools in which:

21 percent of all students drop out;

31 percent of low-income students drop out;

58 percent of all tenth graders fail in math and 16 percent fail in reading;

81 percent of black tenth graders fail in math and 27 percent fail in reading;

80 percent of Hispanic tenth graders fail in math and 26 percent fail in reading;

34 percent of schools rank as only fair or struggling on the state’s own School Achievement Index;

52 percent of community college students must take remedial English, math or writing;

37 percent of four-year university students must take remedial English, math or writing.

  • Sources: OSPI, SBE, HECB

The clear meaning of the McCleary decision is to provide more money and better schools for children. This will require fundamental reforms to the way education money is spent, more money alone won’t do it, as was tried between 1978 and 2009.

And that’s just what the Supreme Court judges said in the McCleary decision. 

‑ Liv Finne is the Washington Policy Center’s director of the Center for Education

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