Politics & Government

Is school funding fixed? That’s up for debate in front of the Supreme Court soon

A small group of demonstrators stand on the steps of the Temple of Justice and in view of the Legislative Building in Olympia as they advocate for more state spending on education prior to a hearing before the state Supreme Court in 2014.
A small group of demonstrators stand on the steps of the Temple of Justice and in view of the Legislative Building in Olympia as they advocate for more state spending on education prior to a hearing before the state Supreme Court in 2014. AP

The time is finally near for the Washington Supreme Court to decide if lawmakers have done enough to comply with a court order to fix issues with school funding, work that has dominated the agenda at the state Capitol for five years.

Since the high court’s original 2012 McCleary ruling, justices have repeatedly said no, forcing lawmakers back to work time and again.

This year, the state swears, the bar has been met. In the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers funneled $7.3 billion in new state spending over the next four years as part of a complex tax shift aimed at satisfying the court and boosting money for K-12 schools.

Yet a coalition of parents, education groups and school districts disagree, saying the state is still running afoul of a constitutional requirement to amply fund public schools.

The two sides will answer questions from the high court Tuesday, in what’s likely the last major step before judges decide the fate of the case.

The Supreme Court has a number of options after hearing oral arguments this week. Here are some of them.

Stay the course

The state currently is in contempt of court and being fined $100,000 per day over the Legislature’s failure to produce a plan for meeting the McCleary ruling by a Sept. 1, 2018 deadline.

If the justices decide the state has more work to do, they could keep the case open and sanctions in place.

The fines ordered in 2016 total more than $80 million now, although they pale in comparison to the $43.7 billion two-year budget passed in June.

The court might also reduce the fine or lift it while still retaining jurisdiction in the case to compel the Legislature to do more work on McCleary.

That means the court will likely have sided with Thomas Ahearne, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney.

The Legislature made “real and measurable progress” toward complying with McCleary but didn’t “cross that finish line,” Ahearne argues in a recent court filing.

He says the Legislature still needs to provide more money to schools despite the billions lawmakers have dished out to the K-12 system.

The Constitution states schools must be amply funded, and the plaintiffs say the court has defined that as “considerably more than just adequate or merely sufficient.”

This year, lawmaker’s education-funding plan increases a state property tax significantly but also restricts how much money school districts can raise through local levies.

The move is aimed at meeting the court’s ruling that the state must take on the full cost of teacher salaries and the pay of other school administrators that are being funded in part through local property taxes right now.

Ahearne says that essentially shifts where money from basic education is coming from but leaves some school districts in the same, or worse, financial condition.

The state believes this to be a case of fuzzy math and maintains schools have more money now than they otherwise would have.

Still, many school districts, including Tacoma, Olympia and Seattle, say they’ll have budget deficits because of the state’s new school-funding plan.

Groups siding with the plaintiffs also argue the state has left certain areas underfunded, such as special education.

Separately, the plaintiffs also contend the Legislature’s plan won’t be implemented fast enough to meet the Sept. 1, 2018 deadline. Only $1.8 billion in new state spending is expected to be sent to schools over the next two years, with the rest of the money kicking in later.

One wild card: Lawmakers have yet to pass a capital budget, which was expected to have more than $1 billion for school construction that would help reduce class sizes as required by the court. The capital budget was caught up in a disagreement over rural water rights.

It’s up for debate whether the capital budget will be part of the court’s consideration.

Turn up the heat

If the court decides the state hasn’t done enough and really wants to apply pressure, the justices could use one or more of Ahearne’s suggestions.

One is a threat to strike down or suspend all tax exemptions as unconstitutional on Sept. 1, 2018 if lawmakers don’t act. The other would be a promise to shutter the school system next September if the ruling isn’t met by then.

That wouldn’t affect this school year, but would force lawmakers to address the court’s ruling fast. The Legislature is set to convene in January.

The court could also take those actions sooner, probably sparking immediate action from the Legislature. That route would likely face backlash from many lawmakers, especially from the GOP.

Some have argued the court has already strayed beyond its authority demanding a spending plan from the Legislature.

End the saga

Will it be curtains for McCleary, five years after the original ruling?

Attorney General Bob Ferguson says it should be. He wrote to the court the state’s tax reforms were the last crucial element of McCleary to finish. The state boosted spending enough to fully funding basic education, he says.

Ferguson argues that the cost of basic education is met, even if school districts say they need more cash. He wrote basic education is not “defined by school districts’ expenditures” and shouldn’t be “funded without constraint” by the state.

He also argues school districts should be fine, and they should check their math. Ferguson contends every school district comes out with more total funding than what they would have received under past law.

Ferguson also says teachers and school administrators are in good shape under the new spending plan. The state is hiking what it pays to hire those employees and expects the average salary to rise across the state.

“The State is in compliance,” Ferguson wrote. “No further remedy is necessary. The Court need not retain jurisdiction any longer. It is time for this case to end.”

When the court will decide if Ferguson is right is unclear. But it could have big effects on next year’s legislative session and beyond.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein