The best grade you can give the Legislature in regard to meeting its 2018 deadline to amply fund education is an incomplete. And that’s a grade many in the Legislature would give themselves following the record 176 days they spent in session this year.
The only grade that counts, however, is now in the hands of the state Supreme Court, which has received the Legislature’s own progress report, as well as opinions from the state Attorney General’s office, and from attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that brought this to a head in the first place.
The Supreme Court, in its 2012 McCleary decision, found that lawmakers had violated the state Constitution by not amply funding basic education for the state’s 1 million K-12 students. It also had allowed local school districts to rely on voter-approved levies to pay a significant portion of teacher salaries and other classroom expenses that the Legislature had declined to shoulder. The reliance on levies created inequalities throughout the state among districts with differing property values. Justices ordered the Legislature to rebalance the funding system, and when lawmakers hadn’t shown adequate progress, held them in contempt of court but suspended any sanctions.
During this session, the Legislature made what some have called a “down payment” on fulfilling McCleary, a $1.3 billion increase in funding for basic education and lowered classroom sizes in kindergarten through third grade. But the Supreme Court had demanded more than a down payment; it wanted a fleshed-out plan as to how the Legislature was going to meet the 2018 deadline. What the Legislature hasn’t resolved is how it will assume responsibility for paying nearly all of each teacher’s compensation, how it will negotiate those salaries and benefits with teachers, how it will reform the school levy system and how it will assure that enough funding is available.
Thanks to an improved economy, Republicans were able to carry the day and approve the increased funding without tax increases for the 2015-17 biennium. They may not be able to avoid it in coming years, as taking the funding responsibility from school levies is likely to add $3.5 billion to the two-year education budget.
Senate leaders have proposed taking various levy reform proposals on the road in forums across the state to judge public support. An explanation of changes to the levy system will be necessary, but the time to gather ideas on how to solve this is long passed. The Legislature already has proposals to fix this and ought to be ready to at least offer a short list of alternatives to the court.
The state attorney general’s office told the Supreme Court in its report that the Legislature had shown adequate progress and that the contempt order should be dismissed.
We’re not ready to see the contempt order shelved or the threat of sanctions lifted. The court has never outlined what those sanctions might entail, although some have suggested it might want the Legislature called back to Olympia for a fourth special session to continue its work this year.
That’s all up to the justices, but even with a 2018 deadline, each month that passes now without ample funding limits the education that 1 million children deserve now.