Education Lab IQ: The Supreme Court lowered the boom last year when it levied a $100,000 daily fine against Washington for failing to adequately fund its public schools. The total is now $36 million, but it exists only on an accountant’s ledger.

Share story

In this installment of Education Lab IQ (short for Interesting Questions), we’re answering a query that didn’t come through our usual reader voting process, but it’s one heard often enough that we figured many of you might be wondering about it, too. That question is: Exactly what happened to the $100,000-a-day fine levied by the state Supreme Court against the state of Washington in the landmark McCleary school-funding case?

Washington spends more than $10 billion every year on its public schools. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court found in 2012 that our state has long failed to cover the actual cost of K-12 education, and demanded an improvement.

To crack the whip on generally sluggish progress toward that goal, last year the court ruled Washington would rack up fines of $100,000-per-day until lawmakers presented a detailed plan for covering the cost of a “basic” education, as defined by the Legislature itself. To date, those fines total $36 million. So where is this money?

The short answer: in the ether, on an Excel spreadsheet.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to some of the most persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network, a New York-based nonprofit that works to spread the practice of solutions-oriented journalism. Education Lab is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The fine was not included in Washington’s 2015-17 operating budget that passed last year. Nor did it show up in the supplemental budget approved in March. In the minds of some legislators, it isn’t even real.

“It was symbolic in nature — childish, really,” said Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee. “The court has no authority to levy the fine, no authority to collect the fine and no authority to spend the fine. The only way a fine would be levied is if we chose to fine ourselves. Do you know anybody who chooses to punish themselves? It’s just ridiculous.”

It’s a safe bet the nine sitting justices see their role differently.

Levying the fine in 2015, they cited case law from the 1930s, stating that the very creation of a court grants this punitive power. Otherwise, none of their rulings would carry weight, and the court would become “nothing more than a mere advisory body.”

Their order also says the money collected must be held in “a segregated account” devoted to K-12 education.

No such luck. When Karyn Taggart, a special-education teacher in the Lake Washington School District, recently tried to run down the details she came away feeling like Nancy Drew.

For those who haven’t followed every twist in this saga, here’s a CliffNotes version: In 2012, the Supreme Court found Washington in violation of its constitution for failing to adequately fund public education and leaving individual school districts to make up the shortfall.

That situation, not surprisingly, has led to gaping differences across the state, with wealthier areas able to pay more for teachers, buildings and supplies than poorer ones. This is what officials mean when they say the quality of children’s education is too dependent on their ZIP code.

Since then, legislators have made incremental moves toward lowering class sizes and providing preschool for all kids. But not nearly enough momentum for the judges, who grew impatient in 2015.

“We have,” they wrote, “further promises, not concrete plans.” Their $100,000 daily fine was aimed to be a financial kick-in-the-pants for lawmakers, though it’s a comparatively moderate sanction compared to other options, like closing schools or threatening to dock legislators’ salaries.

So far, the punishment has not actually cost anyone anything, and lawmakers don’t appear to be sweating it.

House Democrats included $21 million for McCleary penalties in a first draft of their supplemental spending proposal earlier this year. But the Senate, noting that the funds exist in state reserves, earmarked nothing specifically for McCleary fines.

“No question, it’s much cleaner if appropriated into a separate account,” said House Majority Leader Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington. “But in the end, it was one of those compromises that we made, knowing that we’re ultimately going to provide money for the funds levied against us in a huge education budget.”

That’s essentially where both sides come down, saying that in 2017, the McCleary fines will be subsumed in a Godzilla-sized school spending plan projected to grow from the current $21.4 billion two-year budget to something approaching $25 billion.

“Sure, call the McCleary fines the first $36 million of that amount,” Manweller, the Ellensburg lawmaker, said. “At the end of the day, the fine was a political tool by a political court. They knew we weren’t going to collect it.”

Meanwhile, accountants continue to watch the meter tick ever upward, and next Sunday they’ll add another $700,000 to the (theoretical) pot.