Washington lawmakers approved a sweeping set of changes to public schools Friday, five years after being slapped with a state Supreme Court order to fix how they pay for education.
They now get to wait and find out whether their work passes the legal test.
The budget Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law Friday adds $1.8 billion in new state spending for K-12 education over the next two years. Over four years, lawmakers said the plan will add about $7.3 billion in new state money for schools, while reducing the state’s reliance on local school-district levies to pay for basic education.
Inslee and top lawmakers said Friday they are confident those investments comply with the state Supreme Court’s orders in the McCleary case. In the 2012 decision, the high court said the state was failing to meet its constitutional duty to fully fund the state’s school system.
“I absolutely think this meets the constitutional obligation,” said Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup and the chairman of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee. “And I think it’s landmark legislation that provides equity for kids across our state.”
Others still aren’t sure the state has gone far enough.
“This definitely does not satisfy what the court ordered,” said Tom Ahearne, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the McCleary case. “The question is, will the court say it’s enough to give them a pass?”
State lawmakers have spent the past few years struggling with the final piece of the McCleary ruling: Taking on the full costs of paying teachers and other school employees. Right now, a large chunk of those salary costs are being paid through local school-district levies, an arrangement the court has said is unconstitutional.
The state is being held in contempt of court for its lack of progress, with the court imposing daily fines of $100,000 a day.
Last year, the court ordered lawmakers to come up with final solution for McCleary by the time they adjourn in 2017. The court said the plan must be implemented by Sept. 1, 2018.
The Legislature responded this year with a plan that raises the state property tax, collects taxes from internet sales and closes some tax exemptions to help boost money for schools. At the same time, lawmakers approved a new cap on how much money school districts can raise through their local property tax levies — something that lawmakers said would help prevent another McCleary-type lawsuit in the future.
Now that a budget is signed, attorneys for the state have until about the end of July to file a report outlining why they think lawmakers have done enough to satisfy the court’s orders. They’ll argue that the court should lift the contempt sanctions against the state.
Ahearne said the McCleary plaintiffs will argue the opposite: that the sanctions should increase. Ahearne said that he’ll file his brief by roughly the end of August.
The court will make a decision sometime after that.
Ahearne said he doesn’t think the Legislature’s efforts this year are sufficient, partly because the state has talked about higher levels of funding in past briefs filed with the court. Ahearne said the state would have needed to come up with more like $8.5 billion over four years, at a minimum.
“It’s not even close to what the state told the court the number was going to be,” Ahearne said.
Rich Wood, a spokesman for the Washington Education Association, said he thinks the state will have additional problems because the plan takes a few years to phase in all the new money for schools. Wood said the court was clear in its last order that the money had to be in place by September 2018.
“That’s a little over a year away,” Wood said. “Whereas, this new funding plan is spread out over four years, with the biggest amount of money in the fourth year, in 2021.”
State Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, said he sees another issue: a few years from now, the property tax the plan uses to pay for schools would be subject to the state’s 1 percent limit on the annual growth of property tax collections. That limitation means that over time, the property tax rate will actually decline, cutting down the amount of money the state can collect from the tax.
That’s not a stable enough source of revenue for schools, Pedersen said, calling the plan “a ticking time bomb.”
“This bill is unfortunately not sustainable,” Pedersen said during a Senate floor debate Friday.
State Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia and the Senate’s chief budget writer, said he doesn’t think the 1 percent property-tax cap should be a concern. For the first four years, the cap won’t apply to the property tax the state is using for schools. The Legislature can then make a decision later about whether or not the cap should apply going forward, he said.
State Superintendent Chris Reykdal, a former Democratic lawmaker, said he thinks the court could potentially take issue with how long it takes the Legislature to push new money out to public schools, or whether the plan does enough to boost money for special education.
Still, Reykdal said he thinks lawmakers’ work this year is “the biggest leap we have seen the Legislature make since the case was brought.” He estimated that when factoring in how the plan will reduce local school district levies, it will put about $5 billion in net new funding into K-12 schools over the next four years.
“I’ve got to think this gets it done — or really, really close if not,” Reykdal said.
Reykdal said it’s possible the court will lift the contempt finding against the state and vacate the daily fines, but continue to monitor the Legislature’s progress. In its 2012 ruling, the court took the unusual step of retaining jurisdiction over the case, and requiring lawmakers to submit regular reports on how they’re working to comply with the decision.
“It’s possible they’ll say, ‘You’re not in contempt any more, because you are making really good progress and this is close — but we’re going to keep the case open, because there’s more for you to do,’ ” Reykdal said.