SOUNDS like the state Supreme Court is prepared to go to the brink over school funding. In a menacing order last week, the justices summoned lawmakers to the Temple of Justice on Sept. 3 to explain why they haven’t written a plan to fully pay for basic education.
Among other things, lawmakers are supposed to explain why the court shouldn’t dictate the bills it expects the Legislature to pass; why it shouldn’t order the governor to begin selling state assets to pay for schools; and why it shouldn’t shut down the state school system until lawmakers pass a school-funding plan to its liking.
The court’s threats are serious, but the latest order in the McCleary v. State of Washington school-funding case ought to bother anyone familiar with the state Constitution and the separation of powers. If the court follows through, either it would reign supreme or the Legislature would learn how to defeat it.
The Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling has done much good. The 2012 decision correctly held that the state has failed to uphold its obligation to fully fund basic education.
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So far, lawmakers have done everything the original McCleary ruling asked them to do, and they have launched a vigorous debate about education reform. Legislative leaders plan to beef up K-12 spending by $3 billion, to $7 billion, by the 2017-2018 school year. Lawmakers have pumped $1 billion into education so far, and they haven’t missed a deadline, under the original order.
Yet, a January order from the courtordered lawmakers to come up with a plan by April, a full year before they could reasonably be expected to debate their next biennial budget. Lawmakers didn’t do it, and instead they handed in a reasonable explanation — the political system, which budgets every two years, just doesn’t work that way.
Frustrated justices are unmoved. If their latest order is taken at face value, the court could become a destructive force, not a constructive one.
Perhaps the talk of a contempt citation and other sanctions is the only way the court can communicate — the expression of a government branch that knows no other way to begin a dialogue.
The court is right to keep up the pressure, but wrong to expect the Legislature to fix everything immediately. The court should stay its hand, rather than launching a war in which all parties would lose.
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).