What education inaction could mean

Fourteen months ago Seattle attorney Thomas Ahearne beat the state in one of the most important lawsuits in Washington history.

Yet his clients are still waiting for the state to pay up.

If it doesn’t start soon, even incrementally, lawmakers could face consequences such as a fine, a pay freeze or, as improbable as it sounds, time behind bars.

Ahearn represented two families with school-age children, the McClearys and Venemas, a coalition of districts and education organs known as the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools, and, literally, a million public school students.

He convinced the Supreme Court that the state was violating its constitutional obligation to provide all students with an amply funded program of basic education.

Justices, in last year’s McCleary decision, gave lawmakers and the governor until 2018 to fully comply, knowing the cost could reach into the billions of dollars.

A majority of the court wants to see steady progress toward compliance beginning with a down payment in the budget the Legislature passes and Gov. Jay Inslee signs this year.

If that amount is deemed inadequate, the court can respond in a variety of ways, Ahearne said.

In his view justices can:

•issue a writ of mandamus compelling the Legislature to act;

• invalidate the budget plan and make it be redone;

• nullify payments for specific items such as salaries or dry cleaning and steer the dollars into education;

• find lawmakers in contempt of the court’s orders and fine them; and

• send one or more lawmakers to jail as punishment for being in contempt.

Locking someone up would be an overreach, Ahearne said. Doing nothing is not an option either as his clients are concerned too many lawmakers aren’t taking the McCleary decision serious enough.

“Some lawmakers are trying to do something about this. There are some that are obstructing justice in my view,” Nick Brossoit, leader of the NEWS coalition and superintendent of the Edmonds School District, said at a Sunday conference of school district superintendents and trustees.

Put Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, in the column of those trying to do something.

He’s the chief budget writer for House Democrats and wants to pump $1.7 billion into basic education in the two-year spending plan he’s crafting right now. It’s too soon to know what will be the final sum.

If justices don’t think the adopted budget measures up to their dictates, they should declare it unconstitutional and make us redo it, he said.

That would cause a bit of chaos. Lawmakers would need to rush back to Olympia for a special session while the governor cut spending in most agencies until a new budget reached his desk.

Such a drastic step might be a wake-up call for any legislator doubting the high court’s seriousness in wanting its decision carried out, he said.

Right now, Ahearne is closely watching the Legislature. Eventually he will urge justices to take some action because time is wasting for his clients.

“At some point the Supreme Court must make a fundamental decision on whether constitutional rights are being violated here and what they are going to do about it,” he said.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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