Washington state lawmakers are badly split on how to meet court order to increase education funding.

Share story

One year ago, the state Supreme Court told lawmakers they were violating the constitutional rights of the state’s 1 million public-school children.

In a case brought by parents, teachers and school districts, the court demanded the Legislature stop stalling and start increasing funding for education.

And if that wasn’t clear enough, the court took the rare step of chiding lawmakers again last month for not moving fast enough.

Despite the unprecedented pressure, lawmakers are entering this year’s session starkly divided on even the most basic aspects of meeting that responsibility — how much money is needed, how to spend the dollars and, most important, where to find them.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

“This is going to be our focus this session,” said state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle. “It has to be. It’s imperative that we solve this puzzle.”

As the session opens Monday, Democrats, who control the state House, are basing their proposal on promises the Legislature made a few years ago — to fund a full day of kindergarten for all students and smaller class sizes in early grades and to better cover the costs of school materials and operations.

They’re talking about an education-funding increase of $1.7 billion this session, much of it raised through new taxes.

Republicans, who control the state Senate with the help of two renegade Democrats, view the court ruling as a broad mandate to improve education.

They want to find between $500 million and $1.5 billion more for education by limiting other state programs — but they also plan to demand bitterly contested policy changes, including grading every school and putting the lowest-performing schools in a special state-run district.

Gov.-elect Jay Inslee, a Democrat, wants policy changes and $1 billion more for education without new taxes. But he said he isn’t even sure the $1 billion is achievable.

“We’re in for a complicated negotiation,” said Inslee spokesman Sterling Clifford.

Looming over that negotiation is the prospect of a power struggle: What can the Supreme Court do if it doesn’t think the Legislature has gone far enough?

That struggle has played out in other states, but rarely — if ever — here.

Billions needed

The showdown over school funding has roots back in the 1970s, but this latest round started in 2007, when Jefferson County parent Stephanie McCleary sued, along with 30 school districts, 30 local teachers unions and a host of others.

They argued the Legislature had long failed to sufficiently provide for the education of all students — something the state Constitution says is the state’s paramount duty.

In 2009, as the lawsuit worked through the system, lawmakers passed two bills that redefined what it means to provide a basic education for all students, and mapped out how to fund much of it by 2018.

In their ruling, the justices essentially ordered the Legislature to fund the promises made in those bills, which would cost an estimated $1.6 billion to $2.2 billion per year above what the state now spends.

Legislators set a 2018 deadline for four elements in those bills.

They pledged to give districts enough money to offer a full day of kindergarten for all students, up from the half day they now fund. They said they would pay for one teacher for every 17 students from kindergarten through grade three, down from 25. They also agreed to fill in some big gaps between what they give school districts for transportation, and for textbooks, heating and other costs, and what it actually costs districts to pay for them.

Districts aren’t bound to use the money that way, but most likely would.

Lawmakers made additional promises as well, such as adding 80 hours of classroom time from seventh grade through high school. But they did not set an explicit deadline.

The teachers union and some of their Democratic supporters think the McCleary ruling also requires the state to increase its contribution for salaries; others do not. If compensation costs are included, the ruling’s price tag would go up even more.

Two approaches

In the Legislature, two main approaches have emerged.

One is led by House budget chairman Ross Hunter, D-Bellevue. The other, by state Sens. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, leaders in a coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats expected to narrowly control the 49-member chamber.

Hunter said his calculations indicate that funding the improvements would cost about $4.5 billion per biennium. He’d like to start with a proportional amount this session, $1.7 billion.

He wants to raise tax revenue to fund part of that, saying cuts alone would be politically impossible because that would mean slashing health care for the developmentally disabled, for example, or loosening penalties for drug offenders.

Among the revenue ideas floated by Democrats are a gas tax to pay for school buses and an extension of a beer-tax surcharge that’s set to expire next summer.

Tom and Litzow are seeking an education-funding increase of between $500 million and $1.5 billion, according to Litzow.

Litzow did not rule out taxes, but he wants to cap all growth in noneducation spending in future budgets — an approach Democrats say would devastate the social-safety net.

The Senate may also seek to tweak the definition of basic education. Tom, for example, thinks the money earmarked for all-day kindergarten could be better spent. But the court has already said any changes can’t just be about saving money.

Tom and Litzow also said they will use the debate over the court ruling to push for policy changes, including, for example, even stricter teacher evaluations than the ones soon to go into effect.

“The Supreme Court ruling is not only about money,” Litzow said. “After all, putting more money into a system and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. So money is a key part of it, but we have to think about reforms as well.”

But advocates say it can’t just be about reform, either.

The McCleary plaintiffs have done a lot of work to get to this point, “where they have all of the pressure and all of the domino pieces in place for funding,” said Frank Ordway of the League of Education Voters.

Court watching

Whatever happens, the Supreme Court is watching closely.

To James Lobsenz, an attorney who specializes in constitutional law, the fact that the justices have retained jurisdiction means they don’t want the matter to drag on for years.

In other states, courts have taken additional steps in school-funding rulings, including appointing special masters to oversee progress, or ordering lawmakers to distribute school funding more equally.

Thomas Ahearne, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said the court also could hold lawmakers in contempt, or nullify some of the checks the states writes for noneducation programs.

Nobody really wants to find out how far the court will go, said Hunter, the House budget chairman.

Like the three biggest kids in middle school, he said, the executive, legislative and judicial branches don’t really want to test each other’s strength.

“There are things the court could do to enforce the law. If they could work — who knows?” Hunter said. “None of us really wants to have that fight because we don’t want to find out what would happen.”

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or seattletimes.com“>brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 orlshaw@seattletimes.com. On Twitter: @LShawST.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.