The state’s highest court said Wednesday it will keep its contempt order and daily sanctions in place in the McCleary school-funding case. And the September 2018 deadline for full compliance still stands.
OLYMPIA — Saying it can’t accept “part compliance for full compliance,” the Washington Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that state lawmakers must meet their longstanding September 2018 deadline for fully funding the K-12 school system.
In the latest twist of the 2012 school-funding order known as the McCleary decision, the justices wrote that Washington legislators did, in their last session, come up with a plan to adequately boost state funding for K-12 schools.
But even attorneys for the state have acknowledged that the funding plan wouldn’t be in place by the 2018 deadline.
In their Wednesday order, the justices took issue with that, noting that the Legislature had years to finish the work — but delayed much of the work until this year.
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While state lawyers have said lawmakers labored in 2017 to come up with a plan for full funding, the court wrote in its 46-page order that “the need to act ‘all of a sudden’ [this year] is of the legislature’s own doing, and if its hands are tied, it tied them.”
“In prior orders,” they added, “the court has reminded the State of the firm September 2018 deadline and the need to act with dispatch … The opportunity to take timely action did not suddenly present itself in the 2017 legislative session.”
The court will maintain oversight of the case and the $100,000-per-day fines the justices imposed in 2015.
The justices also are requiring the state to report back to the court in April 2018, after next year’s legislative session is expected to end.
The ruling once again puts the issues of school funding back at the feet of lawmakers, who will gather in Olympia in January for a 60-day legislative session.
In their ruling, the justices said the Legislature must speed up its implementation of the plan so that it is fully funded by the September 2018.
That could cost about $1 billion, according to the ruling.
Now, lawmakers must figure out how — or whether — to make that happen.
State schools chief Chris Reykdal said it may be technically impossible for legislators to speed up the school-funding plan’s tax collections to meet the September 2018 deadline.
“The Legislature added $7 billion over the next four years to the state property tax, and it can’t move faster than that,” said Reykdal, a former member of the state House and a Democrat.
Reykdal noted, however, that the justices seemed mostly concerned with how quickly the state will provide enough money for teacher and other school staff salaries.
It’s possible that lawmakers next year could tap about $1 billion in the state’s cash reserves to satisfy the court’s immediate concern that the plan be funded, Reykdal said.
“It could be a short-term solution,” he said.
The court’s 2012 landmark McCleary ruling found that Washington was violating the constitutional rights of Washington’s approximately 1 million schoolchildren by failing to amply fund a basic education for them.
Lawmakers have since poured billions of dollars into the state’s school system, boosting state spending on, among other things, school-bus transportation and classroom supplies.
This year, legislators drafted a complex plan for the state to fund teacher and other school-worker salaries. A big piece of their pay has been paid by local school district property-tax levies, but the justices ruled the state must cover the full cost.
This year’s plan included new state revenue, partly through a state property-tax adjustment that will increase how much the state raises for public schools, while phasing in a limit to how much school districts can raise locally.
The property-tax plan will eventually amount to an overall tax cut in some school districts, while raising taxes in others.
In their ruling Wednesday, the justices wrote that the state’s school-funding plan, when fully in place, will satisfy the court’s mandate to fully fund basic education costs.
“The legislature’s actions as to these components are not perfect, but the legislature has acted within the broad range of its policy discretion in a manner that ‘achieves or is reasonably likely to achieve’ the constitutional end of amply funding K-12 basic education,” wrote the justices.
“At this point, the court is willing to allow the State’s program to operate and let experience be the judge of whether it proves adequate,” they added.
The remaining issue is the September 2018 deadline.
When asked about using reserves to meet the 2018 deadline, Tara Lee, spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee, said the governor’s office is “not ruling anything out.”
Inslee, who is currently in Italy, is expected to release his 2018 supplemental budget proposal next month.
Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee and one of the lawmakers involved in crafting the complicated and politically tricky funding plan, said he would not be inclined to use reserves for McCleary. “That’s a tough sell for me,” Taylor said.
Summer Stinson, with the education-advocacy group Washington’s Paramount Duty, agreed.
“The rainy-day fund should not be touched for this,” she said.
“There should be progressive new revenue, and the Legislature has had plenty of proposals and revenue options that they have considered and not enacted … Dust those off and start working on them right now.”
But Taylor, echoing earlier remarks by governor’s office and another GOP lawmaker involved in the McCleary plan, said it’s unlikely lawmakers will make major changes to education funding in 2018.
Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers — who now have control of both houses in Olympia — have staked out an early agenda that excludes some of their notable tax proposals.
In next year’s supplemental budget, lawmakers are also expected to tackle other issues unrelated to education that are likely to require more money.
“Comply — or else”
On the positive side, lawmakers involved in drafting this year’s education plan called the court ruling an affirmation of their efforts.
“Over the past five years we have demonstrated that only by making education our top priority could we pay for schools in a way that works for students, teachers and taxpayers,” said Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia and chief GOP budget writer, in a statement. “Judging from today’s ruling, our way also works for the court.”
Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, also said in a statement that the court ruling showed the justices are “in strong agreement” with the state’s work on K-12 education.
Rolfes added that more work around education is needed, and, “this order reiterates the need for these conversations to continue and intensify.”
Washington Education Association President Kim Mead said she was glad the court kept oversight of the case.
“This ruling proves what we said during the session — the budget represents progress but doesn’t meet the McCleary mandate to amply fund K-12 public schools by Sept. 1 of next year,” Mead said in prepared remarks.
Tom Ahearne, an attorney for the McCleary plaintiffs, said Wednesday’s ruling found a rational middle in the argument over fully funding K-12 schools.
“The state itself gave us a number: It’s still $1 billion short for salaries,” Ahearne said. The justices “took that number and said there’s still no compliance. So comply — or else.”
“$1 billion is a big lift, so we’ll have to see what the state decides to do.”