Is state funding schools sufficiently? Maybe, say plaintiffs

Lawmakers think they have complied with a court mandate. Those who sued are willing to wait and see.

OLYMPIA — State lawmakers think they’ve complied with school funding mandates in the McCleary case but the attorney for the families that sued told the Supreme Court on Monday it is too soon to reach that conclusion.

While legislators have steered billions of additional dollars into basic education, the 2018 school year will be the first chance for the court to assess if the amount is “constitutionally adequate,” attorney Thomas Ahearne contends in a brief filed Monday.

Though plaintiffs do not think the state finished the job, Ahearne said the court should allow the state to proceed “with school district experience being the judge of whether the state’s new funding levels prove adequate.”

But he urged the court to reject the state’s request to be found in compliance because it could impede the ability to litigate on the adequacy of funding in the future.

“The state’s demand for a preemptive factual finding of full constitutional compliance … asks the judicial branch to close the courthouse door, turn off the lights, and go to sleep,” he wrote.

The question of whether the state’s new funding levels do in fact comply with the Constitution is “a question to be resolved another day in another case — not a question to be gagged and buried here with a speculative factual finding of compliance today.”

Nonetheless what Ahearne filed Monday could be one of the final legal briefs in an 11-year odyssey. Lawyers for the state have until May 10 to file a response. The court could then have a hearing or issue a ruling.

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.

Lawmakers thought they had done everything in the 2017 session they needed to do to satisfy the court. But in November, justices concluded their plan to phase-in funding of educator salaries by 2019 would be one year too late.

So, lawmakers responded in the 2018 session by earmarking $969 million to cover the tab by this fall. They also set aside $105.2 million to cover the accumulated fines and earmarked those dollars to go into special education and other school programs as the court demanded.

Last month, a bipartisan panel of lawmakers approved a report detailing what they did. They said then that they were confident they had done enough to merit ending the legal battle which has spurred an unprecedented surge in state dollars for education.

Attorneys for the Legislature cited the report in the legal brief they filed April 9. The lawyers, who work in the Office of the Attorney General, contend the state “has achieved full compliance” with the court’s 2012 decision. It asked the court to purge the contempt, end the fine and “terminate review” of the case.

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

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