Huh? Supreme court has ‘no opinion’ on levy reform?

Demonstrators in Olympia advocate for more state spending on education in September 2014.
Demonstrators in Olympia advocate for more state spending on education in September 2014. AP file, 2014

After three and a half years of threatening lawmakers over their failure to fully fund basic education, the Washington Supreme Court finally unlimbered its artillery Thursday. The dreaded mighty howitzers turned out to be – a pop gun.

The $100,000-a-day sanctions the court imposed on the Legislature – to be suspended if it goes into special session and produces a real funding plan – sound like a staggering amount of money to the guy on the street.

In fact, it’s close to budget dust in terms of the state’s $38.2 billion biennial budget. It’s also money the Legislature was going to spend anyway. The daily penalty will go into a “segregated account for the benefit of basic education.” In other words, it will be spent on schools. Lawmakers will be spending a lot more than that on schools when they write the next budget.

In the end, legislators pay no political price for not producing a plan to satisfy the court’s 2012 order for full funding. Instead, they can comply – or not comply – by doing what they normally do: spending other people’s money. If this is the worst they can expect for future dereliction, they can rest easy.

The poorly designed sanctions actually aren’t the worst part of this order.

In an unfortunate and gratuitous footnote, the justices stated, “We offer no opinion on whether full state funding of basic education salaries must be accompanied by levy reform …”

You sure could have fooled us. The court’s own 2012 McCleary decision dwelt at length on the unfairness of Washington’s patchwork levy system, especially the power it gives wealthy districts to outbid poor districts for high-caliber teachers. For example:

“Districts with high property values are able to raise more levy dollars than districts with low property values, thus affecting the equity of a statewide system. Conversely, property-poor districts, even if they maximize their local levy capacity, will often fall short of funding a constitutionally adequate education.

“All local-level funding, whether by levy or otherwise, suffers from this same infirmity.”

The fact that wealthy districts can pay teachers far more than poorer districts – by $15,000 or more in some cases – is profoundly unjust. The court seemed to think so in 2012. Teacher salaries, it noted, were part of basic education, and “reliance on levy funding to finance basic education was unconstitutional 30 years ago … and it is unconstitutional today.”

Now the very same court offers “no opinion” on whether full funding of salaries requires levy reform.

Politically, levy reform may be the hardest challenge the Legislature has faced in decades. To achieve it, lawmakers must tackle a host of entrenched special interests, including teachers unions and wealthy communities that are quite content with their power to siphon the best educators out of poor communities. In doing so, the Legislature could divert some local levy taxes to the state’s education property tax, which would be a big step toward full funding.

The justices might have helped the cause of levy reform by re-emphasizing what they said in 2012. Failing that, they might have at least said nothing. Instead their inexplicable “no opinion” will actively undermine efforts to fix the greatest inequity in Washington public education.