Lawmakers to try again for education funding fix

OLYMPIA — Lawmakers begin wrangling this week on how to legally fund public schools knowing the state Supreme Court can close campuses if they don’t get it right.

On Wednesday, a new legislative panel meets for the first time with the task of finding a constitutional means of paying for public education by the 2018 deadline imposed by the court in the McCleary case.

The state is in contempt of court for failing to craft such a plan that, at its core, will require the state to pay the salaries of teachers and school employees rather than local districts. It will cost the state billions of dollars and may demand politically difficult votes on tax measures, which is why it hasn’t happened.

Justices will soon consider whether to lift the contempt order in response to the commitment of legislators, through the task force, to act next year to ensure the McCleary deadlines are met.

Those who sued the state think lawmakers haven’t done enough to get rid of the contempt and want tougher sanctions imposed. They argued in court papers last year that justices could axe tax breaks to generate money or invalidate school funding statutes which would prevent schools from opening.

“I think the Supreme Court justices were serious. I think they sincerely believe that once they made a pretty unequivocally clear (contempt) order it would be obeyed,” said Thomas Ahearne, attorney for the coalition of families, school districts and education groups that filed the McCleary lawsuit.

“The 2016 Legislature did not take them seriously. This is the time (justices) either enforce their orders with the kinds of enforcement tools available or they back down and say legislators don’t have to comply with court orders,” he said.

Edmonds Superintendent Nick Brossoit said no one wants schools closed, but without the threat of such a dire consequence lawmakers may never act.

“They don’t have the political will to address it,” he said. “It is going to take something dramatic to force some action.”

Brossoit shared the same view in his March 11 message to district staff and community. In it he suggests justices set a Sept. 1 deadline for legislative action or else schools would not open on time this fall.

“Essentially, the Court sanction has to create enough of a political problem that the “problem” the lawmakers see with funding schools is smaller than the political problem created for the lawmakers by the sanction,” he wrote.

Many lawmakers have been disappointed and frustrated with the court for not recognizing what has been done ahead of the deadline such as putting in billions of additional dollars for smaller classes, all-day kindergarten and classroom materials.

They would like justices to respect their pledge to finish the tough items left on the to-do list in 2017. They seem unfazed by the contempt order and a mounting $100,000-a-day fine. A threat to keep schools from opening isn’t likely to motivate them either.

“I don’t think that would be the right step for the kids,” said Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, a member of the Senate education committee. “The state House and Senate has the same exact responsibility whether the court lifts the contempt order on the Legislature or doubles down on it and that is to fully fund education and eliminate the reliance on local levies during next year’s budget.”

The status of the contempt order should become clearer this summer.

With Gov. Jay Inslee’s signing of the supplemental budget Monday, lawmakers have 30 days to file a progress report with the Supreme Court on its effort to comply with McCleary. In it, they’ll tell what they did this past session, what they’re doing now and why they think the contempt order should be lifted.

The plaintiffs then will get 20 days to respond after which the state will have 10 days to reply to their arguments.

Also, the court is allowing Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn to respond to the state’s filing.

“I urge the Supreme Court to take a hard line. The sanctions the Court has in place now obviously haven’t gotten the Legislature’s attention,” Dorn said in a March 29 statement. “I’d like the Court to establish a firm date by which full funding must be complete. Until that time, our students will stay on hold. And that is never acceptable.”

Dorn, who is contemplating a run for governor, could not be reached last week for comment on the possible sanction of not opening schools.

The leader of the Washington State School Directors Association said in spite of the consternation many trustees feel toward the Legislature, shuttering schools is too draconian.

“I know we’re all very skeptical,” said Alan Burke, executive director of the organization. “There is a process. We may not like it completely but I think we have to have the 2016 and 2017 schools years start on time.”

The Washington Education Association, the statewide teacher’s union, is part of the coalition behind the lawsuit. But its leaders are refraining from publicly supporting any specific sanctions.

“The court will do what the court will do,” said WEA spokesman Rich Wood. “Our focus is on what the constitution requires and what kids in the classroom need.”

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

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