During a one-hour hearing Tuesday, the state Supreme Court could offer its first indication of whether it agrees that the Legislature finally fixed Washington’s broken school-finance system.
Minutes before midnight, on the last day of June, a throng of state lawmakers surrounded Gov. Jay Inslee as he signed an 11th-hour budget deal that everyone in the room hoped would finally get the Supreme Court off the Legislature’s back.
The compromise budget, Inslee declared, would for the first time in decades fully and fairly fund public schools in Washington — a goal that has eluded the state’s political leaders for the last five years.
In 2012, the Washington Supreme Court ruled in its landmark McCleary decision that the state must reach that goal by 2018. Lawmakers repeatedly worked toward satisfying the ruling in 2013 and 2015. Each time, the court ruled lawmakers weren’t making enough progress.
Follow the hearing live
The Washington Supreme Court holds oral arguments in the McCleary case starting at 10 a.m. Tuesday. Follow the highlights at seattletimes.com or watch the hearing live at http://st.news/2ipPWDa
Now, during a one-hour hearing Tuesday, the justices will consider whether the Legislature actually finished the job this year — or if Inslee’s declaration was premature.
“We believe we have met the bar for McCleary,” a spokeswoman for the governor said in an email. But, she added, “we continue to recognize that is a low bar and we still need to do more.”
Justices will hear that view Tuesday — and also from the plaintiffs in the case who maintain that the budget falls far short of what the court ordered.
That’s a view shared by many school officials across the state, who have warned that, in a few years, they won’t have enough money to pay their current staff, meet federal education requirements and keep the lights on. They also worry about new restrictions that in 2019 will prevent them from tapping local revenue to fill in where state funding falls short.
Chris Reykdal, state superintendent of public instruction, also thinks there is more to do.
“I’m not shy in saying they came up short,” he said.
“Lots of progress was made, important progress,” he added. “But there’s still a lot left to address.”
At $7.3 billion, the new spending plan will provide more money for teacher salaries, smaller class sizes and programs that help gifted students, children from low-income households and English learners. Still, some critics say it won’t be enough to cover school districts’ basic education costs, especially for special education.
Reykdal, for example, recently submitted a budget request for next year that stated the Legislature underfunded special education by at least $130.5 million.
“Almost every district I’ve spoken to, that was their number-one issue,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington.
He’s one of eight lawmakers who during the legislative session met behind closed doors to hammer out the McCleary compromise.
And when asked about special education, he acknowledged that issue could potentially stop the Supreme Court from declaring the case over.
Sullivan was even more worried about the Legislature’s inability to pass a $4 billion construction budget.
About $1 billion of that total was to help districts build new schools. But after negotiations collapsed on a separate rural water-use bill, lawmakers in July left Olympia without approving a new capital budget.
Previously, the Supreme Court has indicated the Legislature cannot simply expect districts to reduce class sizes without providing the money to build new classrooms.
“I’m worried they’ll come back and say, ‘Without a capital budget, you don’t have a full plan,’ ” Sullivan said.
In “friend of the court” briefs filed in August, critics of the new K-12 budget have raised additional concerns about future caps on the growth of state property-tax rates. They argue the state’s investment in schools won’t keep up with rising costs over time.
The critics’ briefs also outlined a range of options available to the justices if they believe the state has more work to do. Their suggestions included suspension of hundreds of state tax exemptions and increasing contempt fines against the state for not making enough progress in McCleary.
The Supreme Court isn’t expected to make a ruling next week. But many, including Reykdal, hope the justices at least maintain jurisdiction over the case through 2021.
That, they say, would offer enough time to track the full implementation of the new state budget and whether the Legislature actually fulfilled its promise.
“The job is not yet complete,” said Mary Jean Ryan, former chair of the State Board of Education.
Ryan now heads the Community Center for Education Results, a regional partnership of South Seattle schools and South King County school districts. She said it remains an open question if the Legislature amply funded public schools, as the Washington Constitution requires.
“I want to ‘follow the money’ for at least two biennial cycles, and I think the court should do the same,” Ryan said. “Too much work has gone into this fight to walk away now with the result so unclear.”