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Stephanie McCleary and the interview 5 years in the making

Stephanie McCleary and the interview 5 years in the making

Credit: Laddy Kite/KING5 News

by Cynthia Wise, Senior Assignments Editor, KING 5 News

Posted on December 20, 2012 at 2:45 PM

Updated Monday, Nov 4 at 1:39 AM

On Thursday at 9 p.m., KING 5 airs the latest Jean Enersen: Northwest Newsmakers special.  Included in the hour-long show is an interview with Stephanie McCleary, the woman behind the lawsuit that changed the way Washington state funds education.

I first encountered the McCleary name at the University of Washington while pursuing a Master’s degree in Education Policy.  I knew immediately that KING 5 needed to interview the people behind the lawsuit, McCleary v. Washington. I called and left a message at the McCleary home. I sent a letter.  I tried going through the attorney on the case.

Five years later, I happened to mention my desire to get an interview with the McClearys to an acquaintance. Little did I know that acquaintance knew the family personally and helped lay the groundwork for Stephanie McCleary’s first sit-down interview since the state Supreme Court ruled that the state has failed to provide children with a basic education.

I cannot express the emotions I felt upon finally meeting Stephanie, her daughter, Kelsey, and her son, Carter. As a journalist, I’d been writing about their case for more than 5 years. As a student, I’d cited their case multiple times in papers and presentations. In my 30+ years of broadcasting, I've never worked harder or longer to get an interview.

The interview is particularly timely given Gov. Chris Gregoire’s announcement this week that she was proposing a budget for the coming biennium that includes a $1 billion down payment toward meeting the court-mandated increase in basic education funding.  But does it go far enough? 

"Since the Supreme Court ruling, since the trial court ruling, there were more cuts to education,“ McCleary said. “In two consecutive years (the state has) cut teacher salaries… they put a lot of districts in direr situations. It went directly against what the trial court judge’s decision was. Now the Supreme Court has made its decision and we’re still not back to where we were two years ago.”

In fact, Gregoire’s “down payment” still wouldn't fully restore the cuts to education made during her tenure.

During our interview, McCleary and her attorney, Thomas Ahearn, both pointed to the court’s conclusion that Washington's constitution states “it is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.” The court stressed that “the State must amply provide for the education of all Washington children as the State’s first and highest priority before any other State programs or operations.”

In announcing her budget proposal on Tuesday, Gregoire said, "My proposed budget offers both a solution to the current budget shortfall and a solid start on meeting our obligations under McCleary. This plan is a sensible, sustainable budget for Governor-elect Inslee and the Legislature to consider next month."

On Thursday, though, the Washington Supreme Court said the legislature isn't making enough progress toward finding more money for K-12 education as required by the McCleary decision.

The high court told lawmakers they must have something better to report after they finish their work next spring.

"Steady progress requires forward movement. Slowing the pace of funding cuts is necessary, but it does not equate to forward progress," wrote Chief Justice Barbara Madsen in the order filed Thursday.

The Northwest Newsmakers special will include interviews that Jean Enersen conducted with the McClearys and Gregoire. It airs Thursday beginning at 9 p.m. PT.