Washington state lawmakers — most of them, anyway — have been patting themselves on the back in recent weeks.
After hastily rushing through an education budget before a June 30 deadline, many House and Senate members returned to their home districts to declare that, after three special sessions, the state finally has a plan to fully pay for the basic education of Washington’s 1.1 million students, as ordered by the state Supreme Court.
Attorneys for the state took up that claim and in recent court filings argued the justices should close the landmark school-funding case known as McCleary. In that 2012 decision, the Supreme Court ruled the state was violating its constitution by failing to pay the full cost of a basic education in Washington.
But the fight over school funding is not yet over.
The plaintiffs in the case, as in the past, say the state still is falling short. And in four “friend of the court” briefs filed late Wednesday, several advocacy groups urged the justices to retain jurisdiction in the McCleary case. Some even called for greater sanctions against the state, which, as of Wednesday, has racked up roughly $80 million in fines.
The groups that filed briefs represent children with special needs, students of color, parents, teachers, civil-rights organizations and school districts. No one filed a brief in support of the state.
Here’s a summary of what they all said.
The plaintiffs, including the McCleary and Venema families and a statewide coalition of districts and teachers unions:
In a brief that referenced Martin Luther King Jr., baseball Hall-of-Famer Bill Veeck and parlor magic tricks, an attorney for the plaintiffs, Tom Ahearne, argued the Legislature’s four-year spending plan violates a court-ordered deadline to implement full funding for schools by September 2018.
The brief also suggests lawmakers used fuzzy math and a complicated tax swap to make it seem like they pumped more money into public schools than they actually did. Ahearne raised additional questions about reforms made to teacher pay, gifted and talented education and local property-tax levies.
Ahearne encouraged the justices to give lawmakers an ultimatum: Fully fund public schools by September 2018 — or risk the suspension of hundreds of state tax exemptions.
Best quote: “Plaintiffs appreciate elected politicians’ dilemma. Full compliance with the Washington constitution’s paramount duty mandate is not cheap. Or easy. Or politically expedient. But lawmakers’ full compliance with the law is what’s right.”
The Arc of King County and other advocates of children with disabilities:
In its brief, the Arc group argued the state continues to underfund services for students who qualify for special-education programs, especially thanks to a cap on how many students in each district get extra money for support. The Arc estimated districts lost out on funding for nearly 2,000 students with special needs in the 2016-17 school year because of that cap.
The Arc’s brief also said the Legislature should increase support for students whose disabilities are more expensive to serve. It countered the state’s argument that special education is not part of this case and should be raised in a new lawsuit.
Best quote: The new education budget “exacerbates or creates funding problems while attempting to solve others … the state is intentionally underfunding special education in districts which have the greatest need for special-education funding.”
The NAACP and other civil-rights organizations:
At best, these groups argued, the state only partially paid for the actual costs of a basic education in Washington. Like the plaintiffs, they also told the justices the state is failing to meet the court’s 2018 deadline with a plan that phases in the additional money from 2017 through 2021.
The civil-rights organizations also stressed that the state hasn’t provided enough money to reduce class sizes in elementary school, and they said lawmakers haven’t provided enough support to “level the playing field” for students who are learning English, come from low-income households or have special needs.
Best quote: “The state is clearly telling the court that it does not even plan to achieve full implementation until the 2019-2021 biennium. And, the state has no control over the actions of the 2019-21 Legislature …”
The Washington State Budget & Policy Center, a left-leaning think tank, Equity in Education Coalition and three Seattle lawmakers (only one of whom voted against the education budget):
This group mainly focused on the 1-percent cap on how much property-tax collections can grow each year in Washington. They argued the cap will not allow the state to keep up with the rise of basic education costs, such as salaries, energy and health benefits.
The Budget & Policy Center urged the justices to either remove the cap or compel the Legislature to find dependable tax sources to pay for education. It, too, called for more funding for children from low-income and diverse communities.
Best quote: “This McCleary ‘fix’ is not sustainable … the state risks depriving additional generations of Washington students a constitutionally adequate education. Worse, the lack of sustainable funding disproportionately harms students of color, widening the opportunity gap in Washington.”
Washington’s Paramount Duty:
The grass roots organization, which works to get more parents involved in solving the state’s education-funding problems, echoed warnings that the McCleary plan does not meet the court’s September 2018 deadline. It also criticized the state’s argument that the justices should defer to the Legislature and presume the new education budget meets constitutional muster.
It also pointed out that the state previously broke promises it made about fully funding public schools and raised concerns about the Legislature’s failure to pass a capital budget this year, noting more than $1 billion of that funding package would have gone to building and renovating schools.
Like Ahearne, Washington’s Paramount Duty ended its brief by asking the justices to slap higher sanctions on the state and suspend 700-plus tax exemptions if the September 2018 deadline isn’t met.
Best quote: “Instead of the oft-promised remedy of fully funding of the reforms (that passed in 2009) … the state effectively scrapped that plan. Behind closed doors, last minute, without public comment, it created something new, in such haste and secrecy that many Legislators simply did not have time to read the 600-plus page document prior to voting.”
Attorneys for the state and plaintiffs have until Friday, Sept. 8, to file responses with the Supreme Court. The justices then may schedule oral arguments — or simply issue an order in the case.