Everyone at the annual reunion of people involved in the McCleary education funding lawsuit seem to have grown a lot more frustrated as the 2018 deadline nears.

Share story

The Washington Supreme Court may have finally lost its patience.

At a hearing Tuesday on whether the Legislature has done enough to fulfill the requirements of the court’s 2012 McCleary decision on school funding, the justices seemed frustrated with the lack of progress and clear answers from the lawyers on both sides. Oddly, the justices, perhaps at a loss themselves, kept saying: Just tell us what you want.

Based on their facial expressions as they asked their pointed questions, the justices did not seem happy at the prospect of going into yet another extra inning on this case. They’re not the only ones.

For the past five years, the plaintiffs in the case, their lawyer, legislative leaders, their legal representatives, reporters — myself included — and others have taken their seats in the Temple of Justice. The purpose of this annual ritual is for lawyers to debate the progress the Legislature has or hasn’t made toward fully paying the cost for basic education.

This year’s reunion was no different, but the tension in the room seemed higher.

In 2012, the court told the Legislature it had until 2018 to fully fund basic education. Lawmakers passed a plan earlier this year that will take until the 2019 school year to complete the phase-in. Deputy Solicitor General Alan Copsey offered a creative explanation about how that plan still meets the 2018 deadline, but the justices didn’t appear to be buying it.

I wish I could have listened to justices’ post-mortem after the hearing. They must be tired of all the excuses: The work was hard. Passing new revenues is a big lift. Education funding is expensive. The taxpayers are weary. Lawmakers are cautious.

No. Lawmakers are just late.

And they didn’t finish the job.

Even Copsey made it clear that this back-and-forth between the Legislature and the court on school funding is not finished. He suggested the justices could continue to retain jurisdiction over the case and give the Legislature more time to tweak their plan.

Any optimism in the proceedings was dashed because of something else Copsey said.

When asked if lawmakers could finish during the 2018 Legislature, Copsey replied, “Predicting what the Legislature would be capable of doing in the short session is a dangerous game.”

Lawmakers have made progress on education funding, adding more than $4 billion to the two-year state budget for smaller classes in the early grades, classroom equipment and supplies, student transportation and all-day kindergarten. Now the justices need to determine if they have any tools left to compel the Legislature to check off the rest of the boxes, including ample funding for special education; and establishing the right levels of teacher pay to solve staffing shortages and keep them in the classroom.

I’ve long thought the justices might have to impose the nuclear option: shut down schools until the Legislature can work out a deal. That’s how other states, most notably New Jersey, ended their stalemates over education funding. Maybe it would work here as well.

Although legislative leaders and the governor declared their McCleary work finished this past summer, making progress is not the same as meeting the Constitutional duty to amply fund Washington’s public schools.

Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst summed up the frustration of nearly everyone who has shown up in that courtroom for this annual ritual: The Legislature had five years to fix this. In her comments, she characterized the message from the Legislature as: we’re not going to do everything you asked; we’re going to do some and then we might do more later.

Or not.

Those of us anticipating this annual reunion have all gotten older. Our children have graduated from high school or college. About 700,000 other children have graduated since the lawsuit was filed. And the quality of K-12 education in Washington state still depends largely on your ZIP code.

No one is more frustrated than the woman whose name has become synonymous with this school funding debate.

Stephanie McCleary now has a daughter who has graduated from college and a son who just started his freshman year at university. A decade ago, a coalition of parents, teachers, school districts and community groups sued the state in her name to protest inadequate school funding. She and that coalition won in King County Superior Court and in the Supreme Court, but McCleary said Tuesday after the hearing, “It doesn’t feel like we’ve won.”

Neither Carter nor Kelsey McCleary could make it to the hearing this year. They’re building their adult lives. But Stephanie is stuck in the school funding time warp with more than a million other parents, plus the journalists and activists and lawyers and Supreme Court justices.

“It’s time. It’s time for this to end,” she said.