Whoosh, clang! There goes another state school funding deadline

Kids arrive by bus before heading into class at Harbor Heights Elementary School in the Peninsula School District in August 2017. Meanwhile, the debate and court orders over Washington’s K-12 school funding system go round and round.
Kids arrive by bus before heading into class at Harbor Heights Elementary School in the Peninsula School District in August 2017. Meanwhile, the debate and court orders over Washington’s K-12 school funding system go round and round. Peninsula Gateway file photo

Funny how one deadline to fix Washington’s marathon school funding crisis always seems to give way to another, and another, and another.

It happened again last week when the state Supreme Court sent legislators back to class with a daunting assignment due in 20 weeks: find $1 billion in additional revenue for teacher and staff salaries.

The English humorist Douglas Adams once wrote: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

As the whooshing continues in Olympia, legislators now have a new reckoning day: April 9. It’s the latest in a long series of rolling deadlines, some self-imposed, since the court issued its 2012 McCleary decision, which ordered the state to make ample provision for K-12 education. The court later held the Legislature in contempt for missing key targets.

Many people scold legislators for letting politics get in the way of what the constitution calls their “paramount duty” to fund basic education. Others blame the court for essentially anointing itself the state’s supreme school board.

Wherever you land, we’re all weary of the yo-yo action, and Washington’s 1 million public school children are ultimately dangling at the end of the string.

There was hope the court would cut legislators slack this year, lift the contempt order (and $100,000 daily fines) and congratulate them for meeting their final deadline to fully fund schools before the 2018-19 school year.

That hope turned out to be in vain when the court announced Wednesday it was retaining jurisdiction over the McCleary case.

In a unanimous decision, the nine justices said the 2017 Legislature built the framework of an acceptable plan by negotiating a complex property-tax shift and agreeing to $7.3 billion in new school spending over four years. Adequate transportation funding? Check. All-day kindergarten? Check. K-3 class-size reduction? Check. Special-education and high-poverty schools? Check and check.

Lawmakers even managed to crack the toughest code of all: teacher and staff salaries. They devised a pay model that the court decided passes constitutional muster; the key is that it shifts to full state funding, no longer relying on inequitable local levies.

There’s just one problem: Because the plan won’t go into full effect until 2019-20, the court said the Legislature missed its last and most important deadline. Whoosh.

Think of it like a strict pass-fail grading scale, with lawmakers earning a fail.

Now, not only must they find $1 billion to cover the 2018-19 school salary gap, they must do it by April 9. The alternative is ignoring the deadline and risking additional sanctions, but that would be irresponsible.

They also have to deal with blowback from Tacoma and other school districts that feel burned by the tax-shifting plan. Tacoma says it will receive between $3 million and $5 million less from the state in each of the next three school years than if lawmakers had done nothing.

If that’s not enough pressure, leaders in 2018 also must approve a $4 billion state construction budget stuck in limbo since June, resolve a simmering water-rights dispute and possibly address downstream effects from radical health care and tax bills Congress is considering.

Before Wednesday’s court ruling, Gov. Jay Inslee already hinted he might call legislators into special session in December. That should be an easier call now; the urgency to get a headstart on the herculean workload has reached Defcon 1.

We urge them to resist partisan gamesmanship; Democrats shouldn’t get too cocky after winning a slim Senate majority this month. Heading into 2018, they also must fight inertia, which often prevails during short 60-day non-budget sessions and election years.

That’s the best chance they have to get the Supreme Court off their backs.

Letting the final deadline slip simply wasn’t an option for the justices, who posed this sharp rhetorical question in last week’s 46-page ruling:

“If compliance by 2019-20 is close enough, why not 2020-21 or the following year?”

The thought of more blown deadlines should make every Washingtonian cringe. Because when it comes to school funding, the whooshing noise became a clanging siren long ago.