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Court must intervene for schoolchildren

The Spokesman-Review editorialized on June 11 that the Supreme Court should show patience and not increase legislative sanctions in response to Washington’s chronic, unconstitutional underfunding of public schools. We disagree. The court must take new steps to increase the urgency and ensure the legislature meets the deadline it set for itself – and promised for years it would meet.

Every day we learn more about the impact of decades of underfunding on our schools. Several school districts across the state have elevated lead levels in the water. Washington faces a severe teacher shortage. Spokane schools are bursting at the seams. Inequities between “rich” and “poor” schools continue to grow. Parents with resources scramble to plug holes while those without have to fend for themselves.

Washington families cannot wait any longer.

We believe the court should show urgency and adopt new consequences now. Otherwise, we believe the Legislature could once again fail to fully comply with the court and the constitution.

We filed a brief with the Supreme Court for Washington’s Paramount Duty, a grassroots organization representing parents across the state who are tired of waiting for our elected officials to fully fund public schools. We asked the court to take reasonable steps to turn up the pressure by suspending more than 600 corporate tax breaks, but to make the order effective April 2017, when the legislative session is scheduled to end.

The court’s current daily $100,000 sanction has not forced the Legislature to act. Our proposed remedy sets a new, hard deadline with real consequences, while also giving the Legislature its entire regularly scheduled 2017 session to approve sustainable, ample funding for our public schools.

The Spokesman-Review is correct that there are complicated issues for legislators to resolve as they meet their McCleary obligations. Yet we have seen the Legislature act quickly and urgently, even in the face of complexity. The finely detailed Boeing tax break plan was passed in a special session lasting just two days. In 2016, legislators passed a new charter school law mere months after the Supreme Court ruled charter schools to be unconstitutional. Allowing legislators nine more months to solve our school funding crisis is more than reasonable.

The Supreme Court would not trigger a constitutional crisis by taking firm action to enforce its 2012 decision and 2014 contempt order. State and federal case law going back for more than 200 years is full of precedent showing that the Supreme Court has the power to compel the Legislature to act in order to comply with the constitution. And in comparison with the high courts in other states, our Supreme Court has patiently awaited action from the legislature. Our independent judiciary cannot abandon this essential constitutional function just because a few legislators are unhappy that the court is holding the state accountable to the constitution and to our children.

Parents have shown plenty of patience, but it has worn thin. The McCleary children have nearly graduated high school. Washington’s students still sit in decaying and cramped classrooms. Our state’s children attend schools without the resources to provide them with a robust, 21st century education.

We expect legislators will do their jobs and fully fund our public schools. But we cannot wait for them to act. We believe the Supreme Court needs to take reasonable further steps to ensure the Legislature’s constitutional compliance. Parents, students, and teachers across the state must stand up and insist that the state fully fund public schools now. It’s time to get this done.

Summer Stinson is a co-founder and board member of Washington’s Paramount Duty. Kathryn Russell Selk is a volunteer with the organization. They are from Seattle.


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