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Washington state Supreme Court blasts lawmakers over school funding plan

Kindergartners at University Elementary School in Spokane Valley listen as a book is read to them earlier this year. The state’s high court says the Legislature isn’t doing what it has been ordered to do in terms of fully funding Washington’s schools. (File)
Kindergartners at University Elementary School in Spokane Valley listen as a book is read to them earlier this year. The state’s high court says the Legislature isn’t doing what it has been ordered to do in terms of fully funding Washington’s schools. (File)

OLYMPIA – A recent report on how the state will spend more money on education is so inadequate the state Supreme Court threatened Thursday to hold the Legislature in contempt.

The state’s highest court said the Legislature’s latest update on how the state can meet its constitutional duty of properly paying for public schools does not follow the instructions the justices issued in January. It ordered a hearing in September and told the Legislature to send someone ready to explain why the court shouldn’t levy a fine or take over the budget process until education is properly funded.

The order, technically known as a Show Cause Order, could ignite the simmering constitutional dispute between the Legislature and the court. Two years ago the court ruled that the Legislature is not living up to a section of the state constitution that makes educating Washington children the state’s “paramount duty.”

“I don’t know of anyone who likes to be called into court,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington. “I’m disappointed that we are where we are.”

The Legislature had, over the years, approved good proposals to improve the schools but hadn’t provided the money for them, the court said in a case generally known by the name of the lead plaintiffs, McCleary. Legislators approved some $1 billion in extra money in 2013 for some programs, but in January the court ordered them to come up with a plan by April 30 to pay for the rest of the improvements. That could total another $3.5 billion between 2015 and 2019.

No decisions were reached in the 2014 session, and in April a special joint legislative committee prepared a report for the court that explained there was no agreement between the political caucuses or between the two chambers about what the plan should look like.

“And it offers no concrete reason to believe that the ‘grand agreement’ it envisions will more likely be implemented in 2015,” the court said. So the committee “acknowledges that the state did not provide the plan that this court ordered – a plan that, we reiterate, would schedule phase-in reforms that the Legislature itself deems necessary.”

The court warned the Legislature in January it would consider “enforcement measures” if it didn’t receive a complete funding plan. Attorneys for the McClearys and other plaintiffs, after reading the April report, likened the report to a student telling a teacher “the dog ate my homework.” They urged the court to follow through with enforcement and on Thursday the unanimous court said it just might.

In September it will be considering several penalties if attorneys for the Legislature can’t convince the justices otherwise. Among those penalties could be:

• A fine

• An order that doesn’t allow the state to spend money on some other programs until schools are adequately funded

• An order for the Legislature to pass laws with a certain amount of money

• An order for the state to sell property to provide money for schools

• Invalidating any cuts to the education budget

Last session, legislators argued whether to meet the court order by raising taxes and closing tax breaks, or by drafting the budget so that all education programs were funded first and other programs would split what was left. Some legislators contend the court does not have the authority to make budget decisions, which is the constitutional duty of the Legislature.

The state has until July 11 to reply to the order, and the plaintiffs will have a month to respond to the state, Chief Justice Barbara Madsen wrote.

Sullivan said lawmakers have fully anticipated they would need to solve the problem once the next legislative session begins in January.

“Regardless of what action the court does or doesn’t take, it doesn’t change what we have to do,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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