Politics & Government

Lawmakers award themselves passing grade for school-funding work this year

A small group of demonstrators stand on the steps of the Temple of Justice and in view of the Legislative Building as they advocate for more state spending on education prior to a hearing before the state Supreme Court Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014, in Olympia, Wash.
A small group of demonstrators stand on the steps of the Temple of Justice and in view of the Legislative Building as they advocate for more state spending on education prior to a hearing before the state Supreme Court Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014, in Olympia, Wash. AP

State lawmakers filled out their own report card Wednesday to deliver to the state Supreme Court — and, not surprisingly, they gave themselves a passing grade this year for their work to improve Washington’s public school system.

Now, they wait to find out whether the high court will agree with their self-assessment.

Lawmakers are working to claw their way out of contempt of court in the McCleary case, in which the state Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the Legislature was failing to fully fund public schools.

Last year, the court started imposing $100,000 a day in sanctions over the Legislature’s failure to deliver a plan to fix remaining school-funding problems by 2018.

In the progress report approved Wednesday, a committee of lawmakers said they finally came up with a school-funding plan this year that should satisfy the court, albeit two years after the court originally ordered it.

That plan — widely criticized by school officials and some lawmakers as a delay tactic — forms a task force to study remaining school-funding issues, while promising to solve them next year.

“Obviously we still have a big step to go, and I think we can continue to make progress as we go forward,” said Sen. Steve Litzow, a Republican from Mercer Island who chairs the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee. “Whether or not the court recognizes that, I think we have set up ourselves to get this solved, finally, in the next session.”

The group of six lawmakers unanimously approved the progress report, one of several updates the court has asked for as it continues to monitor the Legislature’s work to address the McCleary ruling.

Fixing the remaining problems outlined in McCleary will involve fully funding school-employee salaries at the state level, as opposed to relying on local school district property taxes to help pay teachers and other employees. Many lawmakers say the salary issue is the most complicated part of the court ruling, which is why it has yet to be solved.

As part of the plan lawmakers approved his year, a consultant will work this summer to collect detailed financial data from school districts, which should help lawmakers determine how much local levy money is being used unconstitutionally to pay school employees. Without that data, lawmakers won’t know how much it will cost for them to fix the problem, said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington.

State officials expect to pick a consultant this week to carry out the data collection work; the consultant’s final report to the Legislature is due Nov. 15.

In the meantime, lawmakers will wait to see whether their efforts will be enough to get the state out of contempt of court. Between now and June 17, both the state Attorney General’s Office and the McCleary plaintiffs will file briefs with the court, arguing whether or not the court should lift the contempt sanctions.

The daily fines imposed by the court will have amounted to $27.9 million by next week. While the court ordered that money to be set aside in a separate account to go toward basic education, the Legislature didn’t approve that transfer in the budget it passed earlier this year.

State Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said the Legislature’s failure to acknowledge the court fines could land the state in further legal trouble.

“We know we’re in contempt, and we know there was a fine, but there was no bipartisan agreement on how to address that fine in our budget,” Rolfes said.

Other legislators said they’re more focused on solving the state’s unconstitutional funding of schools than appeasing the court.

“I’m not going to try to read the court’s mind,” said Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn. “The job that we have to do to pick up the state’s full responsibility for basic education exists in our constitution. No matter what any particular court of law says, we have to solve this problem.”

Yet critics argued the Legislature hasn’t shown the court how it will accomplish that next year, the last year before the 2018 McCleary deadline.

Summer Stinson, a founding member of the citizens group Washington’s Paramount Duty, said Wednesday’s report amounted to the Legislature “thumbing its nose at the Supreme Court.” The group plans to file an amicus brief arguing for further court sanctions against the state, she said.

“My blood is boiling,” said Stinson, a lawyer and parent who lives in Seattle. “I feel the report is unacceptable.”

“It’s now up to the Supreme Court to act for our children, because it’s evident the Legislature will not do so.”

Thomas Ahearne, the attorney for the McCleary plaintiffs, said further court sanctions could include threatening to shut down the state’s school system if the Legislature doesn’t act by a certain date, or potentially invalidating tax breaks in state law to help free up money to pay for schools.