Thursday, September 10, 2015

What if the WA Supreme Court Just Shut ALL Schools Down?

There's the provocative question that Jen Graves over at The Stranger Slog asks.

She's asking about how to properly fund our schools and gives an interesting history about how it happened in New Jersey (which funds their schools very well) and finally got that state to an income tax.

It was something I noticed in a Slate story from earlier this summer about our situation here in Washington, and it bears repeating: "When, in 1976, New Jersey was in a similar situation [to Washington], the Supreme Court shut down the schools for eight days. The fruits of that conflict remain with New Jerseyites to this day, for the need to fund schools more fairly is what led New Jersey in 1976 to adopt a state income tax for the first time."

It made me wonder the following things.

1. Does the Washington State Supreme Court have the authority to shut down schools across the state right now?

2. Is that story about New Jersey really true? Did New Jersey pass the state's first-ever (and enduring) income tax because it had no other way to get its schools up and running after its Supreme Court put its foot down?

3. Has the income tax solved the problem of chronic school underfunding in New Jersey?

4. If the answer to all those questions is yes, then why isn't the Washington State Supreme Court shutting down our schools to force the hand of the Governor and Legislature right now?

I made a few calls, and guess what? The answer to those first three questions is pretty much yes.

 She asked lawyer Thomas A. Ahearne, counsel on McCleary, about this issue:

I put the questions to Ahearne. What will the McCleary plaintiffs do next? And does the pressure point of the Seattle strike help motivate them at all?
"We don't have any plans right this second," Ahearne told me, explaining that you have to be summoned to the Supreme Court—you don't just show up and order them around.
Here's what Ahearne predicts will happen.

"I think the Supremes are going to give the Governor and the Legislature a couple months to do what they’re going to do," he said. "My guess is they’re not going to do anything, and the Supremes will ask both sides [the plaintiffs in McCleary and the State] to submit something to the court saying, 'So, how’s it going?' and our response will be that it’s going nowhere, and the court should impose the heavy sanctions like the ones you saw with the New Jersey Supreme Court."

She really gets down to business here:

One thing working in schools' favor in Washington is the unusual strength of the Washington Constitution in spelling out that education is "the paramount duty"—the, not a paramount duty—of the state.

In other words, our state's constitution says that nothing else should be funded if schools are not.

"A lot of states have education clauses in their constitution; none is as strong as Washington’s," Ahearne said.

So what do we do now? Wait and see? What about the strikers? What about their students?

Ahearne's advice to fellow parents of public-school students:

1. Support the strike.

2. Take that support further, and appreciate and respect and thank teachers more. They deserve it.

3. "Goddamnit, get the legislators to start amply funding the schools."

Parents, get your freakout on. While supporting the strikers, don't support the idea that our kids should be out of school. This is a very good exercise in civic engagement education, and it's terrific that we're talking to our kids about this. But we need to talk, too, and angrily, to those who can make change happen: Elected politicians.

Even if all parents of public-school children voted in Washington, they'd still be a vast minority, Ahearne told me. But the right to an education is, as some have pointed out, a civil rights battle. 

The people whose rights you're fighting for in this case? The kids? Not one of them can vote, so this is going to be up to the rest of all of us.


Anonymous said...

Stopped by our school's picket line today ... the teachers asked that parents contact the School Board, Supt Nyland, the Governor ... and show support for teachers.

N by NW

Anonymous said...



Anonymous said...

Bring on a income tax, but remove every other tax! We all know that's not how it works here, I'm still looking for ROI for the $1,800 I gave to the monoream!

Taxed poor

Anonymous said...

I wrote this as a comment to another post, but, thanks to THIS post, it's even more relevant:
Everything else in the state budget should be analyzed and dissected to re-determine appropriate levels of funding given different timelines and expected needs. Many millions could likely be saved. SPS could also trim district administrative "overhead". Then, and only then, should new sources of funding be considered.

Once an income tax is established, there is only one direction it will go over the years. For selfish reasons for me and my family, I'd really like to NOT have an income tax and believe that needs to be reserved as a measure of last resort after exhausting ALL other options. Also, introducing an income tax without revising all the rest of the taxes to be less punishing to those not as well off would be irresponsible and immoral. <-- all this is an even bigger, more controversial mess than education and would take even longer to resolve than finding more money in what we already have.

Parent of 2 in Seattle Schools

Melissa Westbrook said...

Agreed, Parent of 2, an income tax is not the only way.

Anonymous said...

According to the link above, teachers HAVE gotten a raise, of 2%, for the last 2 years. Is that true? if so, my support is...


lowell parent said...

Maybe the Supreme Court should find the legislators in Contempt and jail them.

lowell parent said...

Maybe the Supreme Court should find the legislators in Contempt and jail them.

Anonymous said...

Wavering - by comparing the published salary schedules the lowest paid teachers (BA 1st year) got an $852 raise and the highest paid (Masters with lots of education and 15+ years experience) got an $1668 raise (about 2%). As the linked article states this was all Seattle provided as the state had not provided salary or health insurance increases in 6 and 5 years respectively.

Where's state?

Patrick said...

If the supreme court ordered jail for the legislature, the legislature could impeach them, as in the federal system, right? I really hope we don't get into that deep a constitutional crisis. For that matter, the legislature could "solve" the problem by defining an ample education as what the state funds now.

Anonymous said...

Where's state?--Two questions for you:

If the teachers received a raise from Seattle, then why have they and their supporters consistently stated that they haven't receieved a raise in years, not to mention that all but capped teachers have been receiving step raises all along?

Who is SEA negotiating with? Seattle or the state?

--Frustrated with both sides (but shifting)

Anonymous said...

Frustrated -

Teachers have not received a COLA in years. That's from the state.
Some teachers did receive a small increase, like Seattle, and that's from the district. However, for most teachers, that small increase was pretty much negated by increases in health care costs and by general cost of living increase. For teachers who have maxed out at their 16+ years MA +90/PhD step (or whatever it is in Seattle), they did not receive an increase unless they are getting some form of longevity stipend like some districts do ($500/year I saw on someone's district salary page) that might have increased. Meanwhile, Seattle rent has doubled or tripled, buying a house is not possible unless you work for Amazon or one of the tech companies, and both gas prices and traffic have increased, meaning long, expensive commutes if teachers live farther out.


Anonymous said...

Yes, frustrated, they did receive a raise, in 2013 and 2014. Here is the salary schedule from 2013-14 with the 2% raise clearly marked. And the step raises.

I am also very frustrated at how hard this has been to find.

Over it

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Maureen said...

Was the raise from the District on the base salary (about 75%), the TRI part of the salary (about 25%), or the,whole thing?

Melissa Westbrook said...

Patrick, good point on reaching a constitutional crisis (which I think could happen if, for whatever reason, the Governor called a Special Session for charter funding but NOT to address McCleary). I would think the Supreme Court would take that very badly.

Yes, I know that the teachers are paying more for healthcare so that district raise got negated. And here comes Maureen with TRI which is yet another part of the puzzle.

Outsider said...

I can hear the chant now:

"No more pencils! No more books!
No more teachers' income tax!"

How about this for a compromise: teachers accept the district offer plus:
1) a promise to sweeten it later if state funding to the district rises above a certain amount (somewhat like revenue sharing in pro sports); and
2) a promise to put a special property tax levy on the next ballot to provide the additional pay increase that the district refuses to agree to now, if state funding doesn't come through.

Seattle voters seem to approve everything that comes on the ballot, so it seems like a safe bet for the teachers, but would relieve the district of any claim to budget anxiety.

Anonymous said...

A bit of history on McCleary, for those who are only now trying to get caught up:

I love the words of the Washington State Constitution guarantee:

“It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders,"

Pretty unequivocal, and, I agree, shutting down Washington State Government until they comply with the McCleary ruling would be an idea I could get behind (not just the schools; I'd like to see a shut down of, say, transportation projects).


Anonymous said...

The state income tax that was proposed was taxing families that made over 500K and individuals who made over 200K; and offering a property tax break. So, I don't think anyone who was "poor" was being taxed.

And, the requirement for a supermajority makes passing these levies difficult.


Joe Wolf said...

Oregon has a high income tax (and no sales tax). Their public schools - including relatively well-off Greater Portland - have been underfunded for a long time; during the Great Recession several districts closed weeks early because no money.

New Jersey has property taxes that make one's sphincter clench (my cousin and her family live in Franklin Lakes), and that's where a lot of the generous funding for schools comes from.

This is a long way of saying that one can't advocate for a new tax in good conscience, without a holistic review of all existing public revenue and what it pays for.

n said...

I like a mixture of income/sales taxes. Everyone has a stake in education and all other services from our city/county/state. Property taxes - I'm against them because we don't actually own our property if the state can take it for nonpayment of taxes. But, if we have to have a property tax, it should be capped or raised only upon the sale or transfer of the property. As a Seattle lifer, I only own because I was here when it was reasonable. And I don't think my stand is unreasonable.

dw said...

Thank you so much Joe, for weighing in, and you are so right. It's complex, with a LOT of moving parts.

Many people here (including Melissa, and this is perhaps the only thing I disagree with her on), seem to think if we just add more taxes we can pay for things like education. State income tax to the rescue! But every economist will tell you that it's not that easy.

Everything has tradeoffs. When you ratchet up your taxes above neighboring states (or countries), it doesn't take a lot of clear thinking to understand that some amount of businesses/employers will move, or die. It doesn't happen immediately (though some low-margin businesses may shut down quickly), but when they do ultimately move, it's not something you can undo by quickly tweaking the taxes back and forth. Reputation counts.

As businesses shut down, it's not just the business tax revenue we lose, but because they are employers, we lose all the tax revenue from all their employees that lose their jobs as well. Some may leave the state, with or separately from the company, which is bad enough, but some may stay here and present an economic drag as well.

Taxes are necessary to provide many things, of which education is just one, but there is no infinite well to keep dipping into. Raising taxes higher and higher results in lower and lower marginal gains until you cross a threshold and end up with actual losses if taken too far. You don't have to look far to see this happening in other states and countries around the world.

And your sphincter clenching comment gave me the biggest smile of the day. :-)