State Supreme Court to evaluate state’s education funding plan

OLYMPIA — The paperwork is in and now the wait begins to see how the Washington Supreme Court evaluates the state’s latest plan for funding public schools.

Friday brought a final batch of filings from lawyers representing the state and plaintiffs in the long-running legal battle known as the McCleary case.

“Under the current schedule this is the final salvo from all sides,” said Thomas Ahearne, attorney for the parents and educators who filed the original suit.

Attorneys in this 10-year-old quarrel expect a hearing in late October. They will again argue whether actions taken by lawmakers this year will ensure the state is covering the full cost of a basic education for 1.2 million public school students by a September 2018 deadline.

The lawsuit filed in 2007 led to the 2012 McCleary ruling 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 pay for basic education.

The court set a Sept. 1, 2018, deadline for the state to fix the problems and required the Legislature to submit annual progress reports. Justices also wanted the state to give them a plan detailing the steps to be taken to assure compliance.

When the state failed to deliver a plan in 2014, the court found the state in contempt. And when no plan had been turned in by August 2015, the court imposed a $100,000-a-day sanction that continues to pile up.

Fast forward to July. That’s when a bipartisan group of lawmakers approved this year’s progress report.

The 85-page document points out state funding for public schools has climbed from $13.4 billion in the 2011-13 biennium to $22 billion in the current two-year budget and will reach $26.6 billion in the 2019-21 budget, when all the McCleary funding measures are in place.

Most of the report focuses on the content of House Bill 2242, which lawmakers say is the road map to compliance. It changes how the state pays salaries of teachers and staff and imposes new restrictions on how districts can use local property tax levies. It also generates additional state dollars for schools through an increase in the property tax in 2018.

In its legal filing Friday, state attorneys contend what lawmakers did will remedy the constitutional deficiencies in the funding system cited by the court.

And they argued those actions will phase in full state funding for basic education “in a choreographed sequence that is fully complete by the 2019-20 school year. This legislation brings the state into compliance.”

“No further remedy is necessary,” wrote senior assistant attorney general Dave Stolier. “The court need not retain jurisdiction any longer. It is time for this case to end.”

But Ahearne said actions of lawmakers will not bring the state into compliance and said tougher sanctions should be imposed.

And, since the deadline to comply isn’t until next year, there is no reason for the court to decide this fall to end the case.

“This court promised the over 1 million kids in our state’s public schools that it would be vigilant in enforcing the positive, constitutional right each one of them has to an amply funded basic education,” Ahearne wrote in his brief filed Friday. “Plaintiffs respectfully ask this court to keep its promise.”

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

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