On June 9, 2016, Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn asked our Supreme Court to close our public schools due to the fact that the legislature has failed to adequately fund them. On July 19, 2016, Dorn added insult to injury by asking the Court to declare about one billion dollars in local levies to be unconstitutional. Dorn is hoping these actions will force the legislature to act. But what if the legislature does not act? There are two devastating adverse consequences of depriving schools of one billion dollars in local funds. First, teacher salaries in our state would plunge to the lowest in the nation. (Washington teachers are already the fourth lowest paid in the nation and the most over-worked in the nation due to the fact that our class sizes are the highest in the nation). Second, the loss of one billion dollars could result in more than 10,000 teachers losing their jobs - causing class sizes to rise from 32 students to 35 students per class. In this article, we will explain why Dorn's lawsuit is not only harmful to students and teachers - it is contrary to the Washington state constitution. If you care about the future of our public schools, please share this important article with other parents and teachers.
In a previous article, I explained why closing schools was not an effective way to force the legislature to fully fund schools. Here is a link to this article:
In this article, we will look at the legal and Constitutional ramifications of robbing schools of one billion dollars in local funds at a time when the legislature has failed to adequately fund them. Here is a link to the Dorn Lawsuit in case you want to read it: http://www.k12.wa.us/Communications/PressReleases2016/ComplaintAsFiled.pdf
Here is a quote from Dorn's Press Release: "Today, I filed a lawsuit against seven school districts, demanding that they stop using special levies to pay supplemental contracts for teachers... Using local levies to pay for basic education costs – which includes some teacher salaries – is unconstitutional."
The complaint was filed against seven of the largest school districts in the state including the Seattle School District, the Everett School District, the Bellevue School District, the Spokane School District, the Tacoma School District, the Evergreen School District and the Puyallup School District. Together these 7 school districts serve about 200,000 students or one in every five students in our state. But in reality, this complaint would affect every school district using local levy funds to offset the lack of state funds to pay teachers. This includes nearly every major school district in our state.
First, we should understand that at a surface level, Dorn is correct. Our State Constitution and several State Supreme Court rulings over the past 36 years have made it clear that the state legislature cannot substitute unstable and unfair local funds for stable and uniform state funding. But our courts have never found local school districts guilty of violating our state constitution. Instead, they have properly found that it was the State legislature that had failed to comply with our State Constitution.
Our current levy system - which provides more than $2 billion to public schools is clearly unconstitutional because it violates Article 9, Section 2 of the Washington State Constitution. The first sentence in Article 9, Section 2 states: "The legislature shall provide for a general and uniform system of public schools."
Local levies are unconstitutional because they lead to a system of rich school districts that can pass levies and poor school districts that can not. But Article 9, Section 2 is preceded by a more important duty in Article 9, Section 1 which states: "It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex."
Put plainly, Article 9 Section 1 is more important than Article 9 Section 2 because it is the Paramount or most important Duty of the State to provide ample funding for our schools. Obviously, gutting a billion dollars in school funding at a time when our schools are already among the lowest funded and overcrowded schools in the nation would be contrary to the plain meaning of Article 9, Section 1.
So what happens when there is a conflict between two sections of the State Constitution? The most common and basic rule of judicial interpretation is that the Constitution must be read not as a series of isolated passages but read and given effect as a whole document.
“The Court is guided by the basic principle that a statute should be read as a harmonious whole, with its separate parts being interpreted within the broader statutory context... The cardinal rule of construction is that the whole statute should be drawn upon.” 2011 Congressional Research Service https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/97-589.pdf
“We must not be guided by a single sentence but look to the provisions of the whole law and to its object and policy.” US Supreme Court Chief Justice Taney 1850
Dorn has failed to consider the whole constitution because he filed a lawsuit that seeks to enforce Article 9 Section 2 while ignoring the plain meaning of Article 9 Section 1. He claims he is filing this lawsuit in order to force the legislature to honor Article 9, Section 1. But the Court cannot assume that the legislature will in fact honor Article 9. Section 1. Nor can the Court ignore one section of the State Constitution in order to enforce another section of the State Constitution.
Thankfully, there is a way for the Court to solve this dilemma. The Court should find that local levies are unconstitutional (something the Court has already stated several times). But the Court should also find that local school districts may use local levies to pay for basic education teachers salaries since the legislature has failed in its Paramount Duty to amply fund our public schools. The Court should make it clear that school districts will not be required to comply with the Constitution until after the legislature has complied with their Paramount Duty to fund our schools.
To find otherwise would be to punish school districts and students for a problem created by the legislature. To be clear, school districts and students are the innocent victims of a crime – a crime being committed by our state legislature. To punish school districts for using local funds to pay for teachers would be like punishing drivers for the fact that they are caught in a traffic jam and are therefore driving at 50 MPH below the speed limit. It is the legislature who created the traffic jam by failing to fund our roads. The drivers of cars have no other choice but to do what they can under circumstances beyond their control to make it through the nightmare created by an irresponsible legislature.
Dorn's lawsuit against school districts is equally reckless and irresponsible. It deals with a symptom of the school funding problem and not the actual cause of the problem. The actual cause of the school funding crisis is that the legislature is giving away $4 in illegal tax breaks to wealthy multinational corporations for every dollar it invests in our public schools. Corporate welfare is a crime against our kids and our school districts. It is basic math. We cannot afford to give away billions of dollars in tax breaks to wealthy corporations and still have enough money left to amply fund our schools.
Dorn should not be trying to blackmail local school districts. Instead, he should be asking the Court to declare billions of dollars in tax breaks to wealthy corporations to be unconstitutional. These tax breaks violate several sections of our state constitution – including Article 2, Section 28.
Out of control corporate welfare is the real reason our schools are among the lowest funded and overcrowded in the nation. What we really need are leaders in Olympia who are willing to tell the truth about this problem, willing to enforce EVERY SECTION of our State Constitution and willing to take on these wealthy powerful corporations and insist that they pay their fair share in state taxes so that our kids can have low class sizes in order to get the help they need to succeed in school and succeed in life.
David Spring M. Ed.
Candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction