On school funding, Legislature still has far to go

OLYMPIA — Washington lawmakers know they didn’t make much progress this year in meeting a Supreme Court order to fully fund public schools.

But they’re promising justices they are on the right path and seek their indulgence as lawmakers work toward a “grand agreement” next year to satisfy their wishes.

That’s the gist of a report unanimously approved Tuesday by a bipartisan committee of House and Senate members. It must be turned in today.

“This is a very clear report about a partial resolution of a problem,” summed up Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, one of the panel’s eight lawmakers.

The committee formed after the state lost a 2012 lawsuit dealing with school funding known as the McCleary case. Justices ruled the Legislature failed to meet its constitutional obligation to amply fund a program of basic education for public school students.

At the time, it was estimated the tab could add up to $4 billion to $6 billion a year. Justices gave lawmakers until 2018 to comply but required regular updates on their progress.

While lawmakers made an initial down payment of nearly $1 billion in 2013, justices didn’t think it was enough.

In January, they directed the Legislature to make significant investments in the 2014 session and to craft a year-by-year plan for ensuring compliance.

Lawmakers didn’t accomplish either and admitted so in the report.

The only additional spending they cited was $58 million toward the cost of supplies, books and operating expenses. Passing significant spending bills in the short 60-day session is difficult and the longer session in 2015 will be the critical time for action, the report said.

On Tuesday, members of the legislative committee acknowledged they will need to come up with another $1.2 billion in 2015 — at the minimum — to keep on pace for complying.

“We do have a long way to go,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington. “I think the real test will be in the next biennium.”

And the authors said no agreement could be reached between the political parties and the two chambers on a payment plan, though several bills to get it done were introduced.

“Although none of these bills passed the Legislature, they are meaningful because they show significant work is occurring and because unsuccessful bills introduced in one Legislature may lay the groundwork for successful bills in a subsequent Legislature,” they wrote.

Following adoption of the report, Rep. Susan Fagan, R-Pullman, one of the panel co-chairs, called it a “well-done document. We feel really good about what the Washington legislature has done about addressing the full funding of basic education.”

But Thomas Ahearne, the attorney for the plaintiffs in the McCleary case, didn’t agree.

“The Legislature says this is really hard… give us more time,” he said. “The Supreme Court is going to have to make a decision. They are going to have to decide whether they meant what they said.”

Ahearne gets 30 days to file a response to the legislative report and the Supreme Court is expected to offer its own response roughly two months after that.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn didn’t hide his disappointment.

“The 58-page document released today says very little, and is far from complete. It isn’t even a plan,” he said in a statement.

“The Legislature isn’t going to take its responsibility seriously unless the Court forces it to do so,” he continued. “I urge the Court to do what it can to keep the Legislature’s feet to the fire, and keep the promises they’ve made to our students.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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