Earlier this month, the state Supreme Court gave its blessing to the work of several consecutive legislatures: a grinding political effort to meet the justices’ (often vaguely defined) mandate to satisfy a constitutional requirement “to make ample provision for the education of all children” in how the state funds public K-12 schools.
There is no denying that the Court’s unanimous ruling was an important milestone marking the end of an arduous journey. However, it also must be seen as a waypoint on a wayward track – a diversion from a more important path.
In the cold light of these McCleary-free days, it seems clear that the dramatic multi-year tussle between the state Supreme Court and both other branches of state government succeeded in reforming the funding of basic public education, and not much else. The Court rests, but whether students will benefit from the compromises is still an unanswered question.
McCleary was plainly and simply about money, and its dominance of the education conversation had real impact. During the McCleary era, we spent a great deal of energy and political capital working to improve the fiscal condition of our education apparatus and relatively little time addressing the machine’s glaring need for repair – and in some cases, outright overhaul.
Although the accumulated results of budget battles fought in the Legislature were ultimately enough to please the Court in its circumscribed duties pursuant to the issues in McCleary, the public – employers, taxpayers, and not least of all families who are counting on public schools to give students every chance at a dignified future – can and should be stingier with its criteria for success than the nine justices.
Did the McCleary conversation help to catalyze a fix to make firing bad teachers less impossible than it currently is? No, it didn’t, and not doing so means that every new McCleary dollar still flows into a system that is defiantly inefficient. Did it facilitate work that would expand school choice? No, it didn’t, which means that every child falling through the cracks is still facing nearly the same odds of failure. Funding the development of data tools to analyze student performance against teacher placements and generate insights of value to school administrators? No.
Finances are only one variable in the formula for providing excellent support for all students at all levels to learn and achieve. The money from McCleary could be a boon to students or it could be like turning up the volume on a bad song; it doesn’t get better when you turn it up to 11.
The absence of a broader public conversation about systemic reform is the outstanding disappointment of an episode that produced so much sound and fury. Those lawmakers who have claimed to be chomping at the bit to improve schools but did not (or would not) seize the moment to bite the leather and tackle the non-fiscal dimensions of our education problem squandered an opportunity. Although there were some lawmakers in Olympia who attempted to inject reforms into the budget debate, they were in the minority. The majority, whether muzzled by special interests or captive to the confines of their own limited imagination to grasp the energy that serious reform and innovation can bring to an overly bureaucratic education establishment, failed to use McCleary as more than just a means of turning up the spigot of cash flowing into schools.
And, because it’s unlikely that spreading a larger pile of school dollars around the state differently than before will, alone, magically elevate student performance, avoiding non-budgetary reforms may in fact expand problems. It will be up to a vanguard of lawmakers, involved parents, and leaders in the education community itself to refocus the conversation about how to remedy festering troubles with student underachievement and opportunity gaps – particularly in rural communities and among at-risk youth – around ideas that have very little to do with the level of funding.
A future Legislature – perhaps the one elected this November – will have to contain some malignant features within the public education establishment or watch the fruits of McCleary spoil.
Bryan Myrick is a native Washingtonian who has written about state, local and national politics since 2008, and has worked as a consultant on a number of high-profile ballot measure and candidate campaigns. He graduated from the University of Washington with majors in Political Science and Communications.