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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Legislature met its duty on public schools, Supreme Court says

In this Jan. 5, 2018 photo, the Legislative Building is shown at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

OLYMPIA – After some six years of debate and political jousting, ending in billions of dollars of extra money for schools, raises for teachers and a significant revision in the state’s property tax system, the McCleary case is over.

With legislation passed and signed earlier this year, the state has met its constitutional obligation to provide for public education, the Washington Supreme Court said Thursday.

The order from the court also ended the $100,000 per day penalty for contempt levied in 2015 for failing to meet deadlines to fulfill those obligations. The Legislature set aside funds earlier this year to pay for penalties through June 30, the end of the fiscal year. That money will be spent on public school programs.

“The court concludes that the State has complied with the court’s orders to fully implement its statutory program of basic education by September 1, 2018, and has purged its contempt,” said the order, written by Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst and signed by the other eight justices.

Gov. Jay Inslee said complying with the ruling was “among the heaviest lifts we’ve faced in recent years,” but not the end of the state’s efforts to improve education.

“There is more to come as we focus on early education, career-connected learning, special education and additional supports for struggling or at-risk students,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, said she was pleased with the ruling, which represents only a portion of the work the Legislature must do on public education.

“It’s a great day, the future is bright and the work on behalf of our kids will continue,” Nelson said.

Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, who was chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee in 2017 when the Legislature passed a budget that the court said met most of the requirements for the constitutional mandate, said schools had been a low priority for the Legislature for decades.

“We were finally able to make historic investments over the past five years by putting the needs of students, teachers and parents first in our budgets,” Braun said. “We still need to make sure lawmakers don’t become complacent given the constant demand to spend more money on many other programs.”

Inslee and the Legislature will be able to address future education issues without the court looking over their shoulders.

The court said it was ending its jurisdiction over the case, commonly known as McCleary based on the name of one of the families that sued the state in 2007, alleging inadequate financial support for public schools.

A King County Superior Court judge ruled in 2010 that the state wasn’t meeting its constitutional mandate, which says it is “the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.”

The Supreme Court agreed, ruling in January 2012 the Legislature was failing to meet the standards lawmakers had set themselves for basic education. The ruling touched off a scramble for money in a state still struggling with a recession, and criticism from some legislators that the court was overstepping its authority under the separation of powers.

The court gave the Legislature until the start of the 2018-19 school year to implement the requirements that existed in law but hadn’t been paid for, and in early 2014 said it wanted a plan to make that happen that year.

When the plan was inadequate, it found the Legislature in contempt, but delayed sanctions until after the next year’s legislative session. After the end of the thrice-extended 2015 session, the court said the report was still inadequate and hit lawmakers with a $100,000 per day fine for contempt.

Although the Legislature chipped away at some of the state’s shortcomings on education spending over the years, it was the 2017-19 budget, shepherded by Braun, that included the significant changes, and a shift in tax spending to pay for them.

Lawmakers approved a shift in the property tax system, raising the state levy on all property while dropping levies for many of the state’s districts but raising it in others. They also approved statewide raises for school employees – adequate salaries were part of the cost of basic education, the court said – but because of complications in the property tax system, approved a two-year phase in of the raises.

The court approved of the changes, but not the delay in the salaries, which wouldn’t be fully implemented until the start of the 2019-20 school year, one year past the deadline. This year, with control of the Senate shifted to Democrats and the advantage of better-than-expected tax revenues, the Legislature moved up the raises.

Compared with 2007, when the lawsuit was filed, the state will spend about $10 billion more on public schools in the current two-year budget. While some of that replaces money the school districts were paying out of their own levies, it means more than half of the state’s operating budget will go to public schools for the first time in nearly 25 years.

After two years of doing little more than tracking the amount the Legislature owed for the contempt fine, lawmakers also set up a special account and put the money into it, with budget requirements to spend it on salaries and special education costs.

All of that justifies ending jurisdiction over the case, the court said.

Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, who served on the Joint Education Funding Task Force, said the court’s validation of the plan was satisfying, but more work is needed to improve the school system and to expand access to early learning and affordable higher education opportunities. “Our work on behalf of the students of Washington is ongoing,” he said.