Washington’s highest court must decide whether state lawmakers are on track to complete the marathon task of fully funding the state’s public schools, or whether state lawmakers are simply going around in circles on the issue.
Those were the analogies used Wednesday by attorneys on opposite sides of the McCleary school-funding case, in which the state Supreme Court ruled four years ago that the state was failing to meet its constitutional duty to amply fund basic education.
Wednesday’s hearing focused on whether the court should lift the contempt order and end the fines, or whether the justices should impose additional penalties to push the Legislature to take further action.
During the 75-minute hearing, the court’s nine justices issued no ruling.
Instead, they drilled attorneys on both sides about whether further court sanctions would prove effective, as well as what should happen next year if the Legislature fails to resolve some of the outstanding problems that have plagued Washington’s school-funding system for decades.
At times, the justices expressed frustration that they were still discussing some of the same issues year after year.
“I see this case not as a case from 2012, but as a case from prior to 1978. ... We’re looking at 40 years of no action or no constructive action in this area,” said Justice Susan Owens, referencing a previous case in which the court similarly found the state’s school-funding model unconstitutional.
Unlike before, the state Supreme Court opted in its 2012 McCleary ruling to retain jurisdiction over the case, monitoring the Legislature’s progress toward a full-funding solution.
Since then, lawmakers have added about $2.3 billion to address school-funding shortfalls outlined in the case.
But they have put off addressing one of the thorniest problems raised in the lawsuit: Ending the unconstitutional reliance on local school district levies to help pay school-employee salaries.
The court has said market-rate salaries are basic education costs that should be paid for by the state — not through local property taxes — to ensure equitable funding across the state’s 295 school districts.
Alan Copsey, the state’s deputy solicitor general, argued Wednesday that lawmakers are on track to meet the court’s 2018 funding deadline, as shown by a bill they passed this year pledging to fix the salary problem in 2017. He argued the court should lift the sanctions and purge the contempt order to recognize the progress lawmakers have made.
“If I’m running a marathon and I’m 15 miles into that marathon, you can’t say that I’ve done nothing,” Copsey told the court justices Wednesday.
Yet Thomas Ahearne, the attorney representing the McCleary plaintiffs, argued the Legislature has done too little to take on the full cost of teacher salaries, as well as addressing other aspects of the McCleary case.
Ahearne argued that the court should order more severe sanctions, such as shutting down the state’s school system or invalidating billions of dollars in tax breaks, to take effect next September. Only those kind of threats would push the Legislature to actually solve the problem next year, he said.
“We’ve been on this merry-go-round before,” Ahearne said, adding that he doesn’t think the previous sanctions have been effective in getting lawmakers to act.
The justices offered little insight into how they might rule — though a few of them questioned whether there would be any point in imposing additional sanctions, given that the Legislature might simply ignore them or enact legislation to reverse them.
“If sanctions are futile, we can’t impose them,” said Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud.
The court’s decision is expected in the coming weeks or months, prior to the Legislature’s scheduled return to Olympia in January.
Outside the courtroom Wednesday, a handful of demonstrators argued that it would be counterproductive for the court to order the closure of schools as a sanction, saying that would only hurt the state’s 1.1 million public schoolchildren.
“There’s no reason to shutter our schools two years before the court’s self-imposed deadline,” said state Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah.
Others, like Tacoma Education Association President Angel Morton, said a short-term closure of schools may be the unfortunate step that the court needs to take to get the Legislature to recognize the seriousness of the situation.
“I want them to continue to put the pressure on the Legislature,” Morton said of the court. “Our kids are growing up and growing out of our systems, and we need the money now.”