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Legislature’s school funding report to high court blasted

OLYMPIA – A recent report by Washington legislators on how they will improve public education is so lousy they should be held in contempt, plaintiffs in the landmark case over school funding told the state Supreme Court.

Their attorney suggested the court consider fining state lawmakers, or perhaps even take control of the budget or close down schools until they comply with the sweeping decision.

The report by a special committee, submitted late last month, ignores previous court orders to provide detailed plans. Instead it offers excuses similar to a child telling a teacher “the dog ate my homework,” attorney Thomas Ahearne wrote in a formal response filed this week.

“This Court must decide whether court orders really matter,” he said.

Rep. Susan Fagan, a co-chairwoman for the joint select committee on meeting what’s generally known as the McCleary decision, said the tone of Ahearne’s response was disappointing but probably not aimed at the court.

“That kind of rhetoric is more of an appeal to the public,” Fagan, R-Pullman, said.

After its 2012 ruling that the Legislature was not meeting its top constitutional duty of educating the state’s children, the Supreme Court ordered annual reports on how the shortcomings were being fixed. In January, the court said it wanted a progress report from the 2014 session and a clear plan for the future by the end of April.

That report listed some increased spending on maintenance and supplies and other programs, but said major improvements had to wait for 2015, when the Legislature adopts its two-year budget in a longer session.

In the 51-page response to the Legislature’s April report, Ahearne belittles the select committee’s explanation that relatively little could be accomplished in this year’s short 60-day session. The Legislature has a history of taking “immediate, concrete action” to authorize new stadiums for the Seattle Mariners and Seahawks, and offer tax breaks to Boeing, he said.

That’s not to suggest the teams and Boeing aren’t important, he wrote. “But at the same time, professional sports and commercial airplanes are not the state’s paramount constitutional duty.”

The Supreme Court could consider holding the Legislature in contempt, he suggested. It could impose fines on elected officials, prohibit spending on other programs until schools are adequately funded, order the sale of state property to come up with the money or shut down the schools until the constitutional mandate is met, he added.

Fagan said the parents who sued the state over school funding are probably frustrated at the pace of legislative action. “They want the public to be just as frustrated as they are.”

The select committee’s attorney is studying Ahearne’s filing to respond to the response, Fagan said. But the committee is a small group of legislators from both parties and both chambers. It doesn’t have the authority to make policy or spend money, she said. That takes action by the full Legislature, which isn’t scheduled to meet until next January.

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