State gets positive report on education

OLYMPIA — State attorneys on Monday urged the Supreme Court to dissolve a contempt order against the Legislature, arguing lawmakers are on pace to ensure the state fully funds basic education for public school students by a 2018 deadline.

They contended lawmakers have met or will meet every benchmark set by the court in the McCleary case and no longer need to prepare the plan justices demanded when they issued the contempt order last year.

“The State has made real and measurable progress in meeting its constitutional obligations to Washington’s schoolchildren,” Assistant Attorney General David Stolier wrote in a brief filed late Monday.

“Although work remains to be done, the 2015 Legislature’s actions move the State closer to ultimate constitutional compliance than any written plan would have done, and continuing to demand a plan at this point would serve no useful purpose,” he wrote. “The contempt order should be dissolved.”

But the lead attorney for the parents and alliance of school organizations behind the McCleary lawsuit countered that lawmakers continue to procrastinate and urged justices to take action.

“The time for this Court to act is now,” wrote attorney Thomas Ahearne in a brief also filed Monday. “The State’s ongoing violation of its paramount education funding duty — and of Washington children’s corresponding paramount constitutional right — has been continuing for far too long.

“The time has come for this Court to make what some would call a ‘fish or cut bait’ decision,” Ahearne wrote. “Either stand up and enforce Washington schoolchildren’s positive constitutional right to an amply funded education, or sit down and confess it was only kidding when it assured Washington schoolchildren that this Court would vigilantly protect them from the government’s violation of their constitutional rights.”

Justices are likely to hold a hearing before determining their next step.

Stolier argued against sanctions but said if the court decides to leave the contempt finding in place it would serve to keep lawmakers focused on completing their task.

Ahearne suggested justices consider a couple of sanctions including barring lawmakers from acting on any legislation not tied to the case or even ordering them back into a fourth special session to finish their work.

Monday’s filings revive the continuing tension between the legislative and judicial branches in the area of public school funding.

In 2012, justices found lawmakers were violating the state constitution by not covering the cost of basic education for 1 million elementary and secondary schools. That failure is forcing local districts to rely too heavily on levies to pay for such things as classroom expenses and teacher salaries. They ordered the Legislature to re-balance the system by the 2017-18 school year.

Last fall, the court issued its contempt order and gave lawmakers until the end of the regular 2015 session to submit a plan detailing how they would meet the deadline. Justices postponed consideration of sanctions or other remedial measures until the session adjourned.

Stolier filed two documents with the court Monday. One was a report approved by lawmakers outlining how they had increased spending by nearly $2,500 per student since the decision and detailing all the places the money had gone. The report also acknowledged they still need to reform the levy system and establish a statewide pay scale for school employees.

The second document was Stolier’s brief addressing the contempt order.

“The State is well along the path toward the constitutional compliance this Court ordered in its 2012 decision,” Stolier concluded.

But Ahearne countered that with only three budget years left until the deadline, the state needs to be pushed harder.

“Plaintiffs respectfully submit that crossing one’s fingers and punting is not the type of complete implementation and full funding plan” the court wanted from the Legislature, he wrote.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;

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