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RIGHT now the Washington state Legislature is cringing like a student who turns in homework and knows that it is incomplete. An impatient state Supreme Court demanded a fully fleshed-out plan for financing K-12 education, on its desk, by April 30.

Last week, lawmakers handed in a report that says they couldn’t reach agreement this year. It explains what the Legislature has done so far, reminds the court of the role of the judiciary, and makes a promise: We’ll take it from here.

What the court ought to do is to take lawmakers at their word, recognize that the Legislature plays a role as important as its own, and let it get down to business.

For now, lawmakers await the court’s next blow. Will it hold the Legislature in contempt? Direct the state treasury to send billions to school districts? Order new taxes imposed on the citizenry? Ignore a state Constitution that says it is the Legislature’s job to write Washington’s budget?

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All are possible, none are desirable. If the court backs off just a tad, the result could be far more positive.

The court set the goal two years ago when it correctly ruled in McCleary v. State of Washington that the Legislature was underfunding basic education. Lawmakers have begun a most-needed debate on school funding, already budgeting $1 billion in additional K-12 money. For too long, they have shorted education in all its forms, and they have spent the state’s money where the special interests were the noisiest.

Time’s up for that. The original, rather sensible, McCleary decision gave lawmakers broad latitude to define their responsibility and meet it. The ruling requires anywhere from $3 billion to $7 billion in additional spending by the 2017-2018 school year. The five-year deadline was thoroughly reasonable.

In January, the high court issued an order that did not jibe very well with the previous decision.
The court said lawmakers weren’t making enough progress and demanded an immediate action plan. Essentially it called on lawmakers to launch a long, grueling debate a full year ahead of time, at a time when it was scheduled to be in session for only 60 days. The order seemed prescriptive about spending, added new programs to the court’s wish list, and ignored the Legislature’s authority to define basic education, not to mention the rhythms of biennial budgeting.

The court may not be used to the realities of public debate, but lawmakers certainly are. Resolution won’t be easy.

Now that Washington’s economy is recovering, the Legislature should earmark the majority of its rebounding tax revenue for education. That won’t sit well with public-employee unions and other interests that would prefer to see a tax increase. Yet some new tax revenue might also be an element.

The important thing is that any solution encompasses a new understanding of the state’s priorities and a holistic view of education. It should go beyond the legalistic basic-education requirements, and embrace early learning and higher education, academic reforms and accountability. And it should deal with troubling matters like the recent loss of a federal waiver that means school districts will lose control of about $40 million in Title I funding.

Such a debate requires a broad canvas — time, effort and the involvement of the entire state. State Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, one of eight lawmakers who signed the report to the court, says the basic message is “go easy on us.”

Lawmakers have nothing to be ashamed of. So far, they are doing their jobs.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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