Washington State Supreme Court Hears Arguments on School Funding

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

Attorneys for Washington state appeared before the state Supreme Court this week to argue again that legislators have abided with court orders to increase public school funding.

Lawyers for the parent coalition, school districts, and education advocates that sued Washington almost ten years ago and continue to say lawmakers have not done enough were on the other side of the aisle.

The state Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the Legislature was not funding basic education and had until 2018 to fix the problem. This hearing is the latest chapter in the McCleary case.

Currently, the state is in contempt of court and is being levied $100,000 per day because the Legislature has not come up with a strategy to meet the 2018 deadline.

The court's nine justices are hearing arguments to assist them in the decision of whether to stop the contempt penalties or exact more severe sanctions that could significantly change next year's budget deliberations at the Capitol.

The News Tribune's Melissa Santos lists the several ways the justices may deal with the latest hearing. The first choice might be to delay sanctions which would allow Gov. Jay Inslee to avoid an urgent crisis and would give lawmakers time to come up with a solution when they reconvene in January.

Or the justices could put the sanctions in place right away, which would result in the closing of schools and the invalidation of billions of dollars in tax breaks for corporations. On the other hand, the court could do nothing, the $100,000 a day would continue to be imposed, and the Legislature could continue to address the situation.

The last possibility is that the justices would lift the fines and the 2014 contempt of court order. State attorneys wish this is what the justices would do since lawmakers still have until 2018, and it is possible that they could meet that deadline.

On Wednesday, the court hammered attorneys on both sides of the case about the efficacy of further court penalties and what should happen if the Legislature does not come up with a solution for the ongoing problems with Washington's school-funding system.

"I see this case not as a case from 2012, but as a case from prior to 1978. …We're looking at 40 years of no action or no constructive action in this area," said Justice Susan Owens, referencing a previous case in which the court similarly found the state's school-funding model unconstitutional.

Since 2012, the state has injected roughly $2.3 billion into addressing funding gaps being discussed in the case. But one of the most troubling problems included in the lawsuit is the "unconstitutional reliance on local school district levies" that make up part of school employees' salaries.

The court stated that teacher pay should be considered a basic education cost and should be the responsibility of the state, not local property taxpayers. This change would result in even handed funding among the state's 295 districts.

When the hearing concluded. the court had questions for the state before they decide to lift the $100,000 a day fine, continue it, or add further penalties for not providing adequate funding for education, reports Paige Cornwell of The Seattle Times.

The state's latest plan is to establish a task force to look for state monies needed to take the place of some local levy spending and instruct the 2017 Legislature to complete its work. It also requires the task force to recommend teacher pay levels and clarify how local tax levies are used.

Plaintiff attorney Tom Ahearne stated that the plan was just "another example of this merry-go-round we've been on," reports Rachel La Corte for The Washington Times.

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