Lawmakers tell court they’ve met their school-funding mandate

The Legislature has approved a report to the state Supreme Court about the so-called McCleary case.

OLYMPIA — A bipartisan panel of lawmakers on Tuesday approved a report for the Supreme Court that they hope could bring an end to the McCleary case, the 11-year legal battle that has spurred an unprecedented surge in state funding for public schools.

With no debate, six Democratic and Republican lawmakers adopted the 16-page report on actions taken in the 2018 legislative session to make sure the state complies with the court’s September deadline to provide ample money for education.

“Hopefully this will be our final one,” said Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, before the vote. “We’ll see how that goes.”

Lawmakers thought they had done everything they needed to do in 2017. But last November, justices concluded the Legislature’s plan to phase-in funding for salaries of teachers, staff and administrators through the 2019 school year would be one year too late.

So, lawmakers responded by earmarking $775.8 million in the supplemental state budget for cover the tab for salaries by this fall and thus satisfy the court.

“That had to be done. We’ve done that,” said Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, another committee member.

And it’s why lawmakers are feeling confident the end is near for the legal odyssey.

A lawsuit filed in 2007 by the McCleary and the Venema families led to the 2012 ruling by the Supreme Court that state funding for education is not adequate, equitable or ample. Justices also found the school funding system unconstitutional because it caused school districts to use local property taxes to cover the gap in state funding for basic education.

The court set a Sept. 1, 2018, deadline for the state to fix the problems.

In 2014, the court held the state in contempt for failing to submit a plan laying out the steps to be taken to assure compliance by the deadline. In August 2015, with no plan submitted, the court added a $100,000-a-day sanction.

Since the ruling, the level of state funding for elementary and secondary education has risen from $13.4 billion in the 2011-13 biennium to $22.8 billion in the current two-year budget. It is projected to be $26.7 billion in the next budget.

As part of the original decision, the court required yearly progress reports from the Legislature. A committee of two lawmakers from the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the House and Senate was formed to draft and craft the annual updates.

Thomas Ahearne, attorney for the families and a coalition of educator groups that brought the suit, said in an email he needed to review the numbers in the latest report to see if the money allotted by the state is enough money to provide each student an amply funded education as required under the state constitution.

And he noted the upcoming 2018 school year will be the first chance for the court to judge the “constitutional adequacy” of all the changes enacted by the Legislature.

This year’s report is the seventh produced by the special committee. It is due Monday. The Attorney General’s Office will file a separate legal brief in which it is expected to argue for the contempt to be purged, the fine to be ended and the litigation concluded.

Once those are filed with the court, Ahearne will get 20 days to file a response on behalf of the coalition.

Once that is in, the state will get 10 days to rebut the arguments. Then it is in the hands of the Supreme Court justices who could hold a hearing or simply send out an order on whether the state had complied.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, a committee member, said even when the case ends lawmakers will continue working on how to bolster support of public schools.

The difference, he said, is “we will be able to look at investments without the court looking over our shoulder.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald Twitter: @dospueblos.

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