Politics & Government

Skeptical justices hammer both sides in school funding case

Tom Ahearne, center-right, the lead attorney in a lawsuit against the state of Washington regarding the funding of education, gestures as he speaks Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, during a Washington Supreme Court hearing in Olympia, Wash. The hearing was held to determine if Washington state has complied with a court mandate to fully fund the state's basic education system. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Tom Ahearne, center-right, the lead attorney in a lawsuit against the state of Washington regarding the funding of education, gestures as he speaks Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, during a Washington Supreme Court hearing in Olympia, Wash. The hearing was held to determine if Washington state has complied with a court mandate to fully fund the state's basic education system. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) AP

Attorneys on each side of the McCleary school-funding case jousted with skeptical Washington State Supreme Court justices Tuesday about whether the state has met its requirement to fully fund basic education.

The justices hammered each side with questions about how they should proceed after a legislative session in which lawmakers funneled billions in new state spending on K-12 schools to meet the ruling — yet critics say they still fell short.

The state is in contempt of court and being fined $100,000 a day over the Legislature’s lack of a plan to address unmet aspects of the 2012 McCleary ruling by September 2018.

The justices didn’t rule in favor of either side Tuesday. That is expected in coming months. But they spent the roughly hour-long hearing prodding the state and a lawyer for the plaintiffs about how the court should act.

The state argued that lawmakers have done enough to meet the court’s remaining demands with a budget that forwards $7.3 billion in new state spending to schools in the next four years.

The plaintiffs’ attorney said the state has succeeded in moving lots of money around, but hasn’t beefed up spending enough to meet the court order.

Alan Copsey, the state’s deputy solicitor general, conceded the plan wouldn’t have enough money for schools by the 2018 deadline. But he said the new complex property tax swap that accompanies the state’s education plan is set up to phase in enough money starting in 2019.

The Legislature couldn’t have made its current plan work faster because of political realities and the scale of changes it implements, Copsey said. He urged the Supreme Court to drop the sanctions or retain jurisdiction only to make sure the Legislature’s money promised for 2019 kicks in as expected.

“This is a sea change in state funding for education,” he said.

Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst questioned that, saying, “What’s been brought is something that says, ‘We’re not going to do it all. We’ll do some and we’ll do more later.’”

Tom Ahearne, an attorney representing the coalition of parents, teacher groups and school districts that sued the state, said that even at full implementation of the spending plan, lawmakers fell short of fully funding education.

That’s because the state’s property tax increase for education came with new restrictions on local levies that had been paying for parts of basic education.

The court previously ruled the state must take on the full costs of basic education — primarily, the salaries of teachers and other school staff — that were being supplemented by local dollars.

As a result of the new limits, some school districts say the changes have left them in worse financial shape than they otherwise would have been.

Ahearne recommended the court keep sanctions in place, or take new steps to force the state to invest more money in public schools by next school year.

He likened the state’s efforts to a plane taking off.

“This was a big lift and that’s why this court gave the Legislature six years of runway to get this heavy lift off the ground,” he said. “Now they’re at the end of the runway and it’s going to be a very difficult lift. But the Legislature can do that.”

Justice Barbara Madsen at one point appeared to agree the state needs to do more. She questioned Copsey over the state’s plan to pay for market-rate teacher salaries, saying, “We’re not there” yet.

Copsey rejected the notion, saying the state will now pay competitive teacher salaries as part of the education plan.

Ahearne faced tough questions, too. The justices pressed him to show exactly what it would take for the state to meet his expectations, and the judges appeared frustrated at times by a lack of specifics.

“I’m not sure what you think we should do,” said Justice Charlie Wiggins, who noted the state has put more money into K-12 schools.

Ahearne eventually said billions more are needed by September 2018. He pushed for the court to order lawmakers to keep working on the ruling in the 2018 legislative session.

The two attorneys also fielded questions about how much can be done in 2018 if the justices decide to keep the case open. The Legislature will be mulling its supplemental budget, which typically makes small adjustments to the two-year budget approved the year before.

Copsey said the Legislature can “tweak” what it has but can’t be expected to pump billions more into the K-12 system as Ahearne argued.

“That’s something way beyond what has ever been done in a supplemental budget,” he said.

The state’s failure to pass a construction budget for the first time in modern history also drew skepticism from the justices.

That budget, known in Olympia as the capital budget, was expected to have more than $1 billion for school construction that would help lower class sizes as required by the court. The budget was tanked by a disagreement over rural water policy. Lawmakers still are negotiating over a compromise.

Copsey said that for now the state has enough school construction money flowing to keep the state on track for its goals. He promised the justices the Legislature eventually will adopt a construction budget “because it always has been” approved in the past.

Ahearne said the delay in money means the state can’t implement what it has promised.

Outside the courtroom, a handful of people gathered to urge the court to press lawmakers for more education money.

“There has been an increased investment, yes, but it is not nearly enough,” Summer Stinson, president of Washington’s Paramount Duty, told the crowd.

Unlike a similar hearing last year, no groups showed to rally in favor of ending the McCleary case. But Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, issued a statement saying he is “confident” the Legislature satisfied the court.

“We hope to know the court’s decision from today’s hearing before the beginning of the 2018 session,” he said.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein

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