In its latest order on education funding, the Washington Supreme Court kept in place its $100,000-per-day sanctions against the state — but decided not to add further punishments.
OLYMPIA — No, the Washington state Supreme Court won’t be shutting down the state’s public schools. At least not yet.
The court Thursday kept in place its $100,000-per-day contempt sanctions against the state over K-12 education funding — but decided not to add further punishments.
Instead, the court, in a majority opinion, called for lawmakers to once again report on its progress after the end of the 2017 legislative session, which begins in January.
The order — which comes after a September hearing — will allow state lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee to make good on their promise of drafting a full education funding plan next year.
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The court did, however, reiterate that it isn’t particularly pleased with the state’s progress in complying with its 2012 McCleary decision that requires the state to fully fund basic education.
The justices wrote, “the State continues to provide a promise — ‘we’ll get there’ — rather than a concrete plan for how it will meet its paramount duty” to fund K-12 education. The state’s 2016 report on education funding progress, “offers no more than the previous reports the court has determined fell short.”
The order comes after a hearing last month where the nine justices pondered what to do about the status of the McCleary decision. In that decision, the court ruled that Washington has been violating its constitution by underfunding K-12 schools.
Legislators and Inslee have put billions of dollars into the school system in recent years, in part to satisfy the McCleary order.
But elected officials have also put off the hardest task of McCleary: how the state intends to pay adequate salaries for school employees.
It’s a complicated problem that involves the state taking over costs for educator salaries that school districts are currently paying with local property-tax levies.
The court hasn’t been particularly impressed by the progress on that front.
The justices in 2014 held the state in contempt for failing to make progress on an education-funding plan. Last year, the court raised the stakes by slapping the state with a $100,000-per-day fine.
In last month’s hearing, the nine justices seemed to wonder whether punishing the state any further would succeed in pushing legislators to comply with the McCleary order.
Lawmakers and Inslee have said they intend to figure out in 2017 how to pay for school-worker salaries. An education funding task force is expected to recommend a proposal by then. Some projections put the cost of a solution at $3.5 billion every two years.
In a statement Thursday, Inslee said the court’s order “affirmed the urgency of finishing the final task” on school-worker salaries.
But, he added, “None of us should view this challenge as solely a court-mandated compliance maneuver. We need to focus on the real-world, classroom-level impacts of how we improve pay for educators. I am confident that we will get this job done on time and in a way that results in lasting positive changes for our students.”
Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, called the court’s order fair.
“I think a lot of us predicted that they would give us this year to fulfill the promise we made,” said Rolfes, a member of the education funding task force.
Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah and another task-force member, said he was happy the court didn’t throw down harsh penalties like closing down the schools.
“I think that would have been counterproductive,” said Magendanz.
One justice, Sheryl Gordon McCloud, offered a dissenting opinion Thursday and argued that the court should lift its contempt sanctions.