Education leader explains importance of state Supreme Court Races

In a June Friday Roundup, we linked to a story in The Olympian on this year’s surprisingly competitive state Supreme Court races

A coordinated recruitment effort has helped make 2016 the first year in recent memory that all three justices up for re-election are facing challengers…

The races are nonpartisan, but all three challengers share the view that the court has failed to respect the autonomy of the Legislature by holding the state in contempt in the McCleary case...The three judicial candidates also take issue with the court’s 2015 decision striking down the state’s voter-approved charter school law.

In an editorial, The News Tribune took aim at Stand For Children and, with less intensity, the Washington Education Association, for their participation in funding the judicial races. The editorial appears most critical of the game – the election of judges in Washington – than of the players.

Bankrolling high court candidates tears at the integrity of a judicial system that’s supposed to be impartial.

Yet, the editorial provided a good hook for an op-ed by Jody Mull, a Stand For Children Washington board member. Mull explains why the group broke precedent to participate in this year’s election.

This year, for the first time in our eight-year history of supporting and working for education champions in our state, the Stand for Children Washington PAC Board decided to endorse candidates in the state Supreme Court races…

We didn’t enter into the decision lightly; however, we had become increasingly concerned that recent decisions by the court have reflected political beliefs rather than impartial judgment. And that gives us pause.

The Washington Supreme Court, led by Justice Barbara Madsen, made two recent decisions that felt more political than judicial in our estimation.

The first, in September 2014, was to fine the state Legislature for lack of progress in fully funding our state’s education system. While we support the Court’s initial McCleary decision and believe the Legislature needs to increase funding for basic education; we fail to see how the court’s decision to fine the Legislature has helped move that process along…

The second decision, in September 2015, regarded the legality of public charter schools. Even though Washington voters approved charter schools in 2012 and there is a state commission overseeing the operation of the schools, the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional. And they made this decision after the schools had opened.

The op-ed goes on to recount the history and effects of the decisions, the benefits of charter public schools, and the education advocacy efforts of Stand For Children, which extend well beyond charter school support. It’s worth your time to read the whole thing. Mull concludes:

We agree with The News Tribune editorial board’s assessment on the selection of Supreme Court justices: They should be appointed, not elected. Until that time, there needs to be balance in the court. We are not convinced there is.

And, while we’re on the issue of education and the courts, there’s this piece by Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, also an op-ed in The News Tribune, defending his lawsuit challenging local school districts’ use of levy dollars. (We wrote about it here, here, and here. Dorn writes,

In August 2015, the state Supreme Court fined the Legislature $100,000 per day for not producing a plan for full funding. That fine, though, has been ignored and even disdained.

My lawsuit will put the same pressure on legislators to avoid layoffs and pay cuts.

McCleary was a judgment against the state, not against districts. The case dealt with insufficient state funding. My lawsuit deals with the unconstitutional result of the funding problem: the use of local levies for basic education. Both are essential problems that my lawsuit solves.

Is a lawsuit the ideal solution? No. But no one, including The News Tribune and the Tacoma School Board, has presented a better idea.

Dorn is responding to a TNT editorial calling his lawsuit the “wrong tactic” to achieve a “worthy goal.” As we’ve written, editorial opinion is mixed. 
Regardless, the solution to the state’s school funding challenges remains in the hands of the Legislature and the voters. In the years since the McCleary decision came down, lawmakers have made significant strides in boosting funding. The court’s influence has been felt. And, as Mull writes, groups with an interest in education outcomes, with a commitment to expanded opportunity, have the right, perhaps the responsibility, to let voters know what’s at stake.