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September 11, 2014 at 9:44 AM

Supreme Court finds Legislature in contempt on education funding

The Washington state Supreme Court is holding the Legislature in contempt for not making enough progress toward fully funding public education but, for now, is holding off on sanctions.

In an order Thursday in the landmark McCleary school-funding case, the court  said it won’t issue any sanctions until at least the close of the 2015 legislative session. After that, action could be swift.

“On the date following adjournment of the 2015 session, if the State has not complied with the court’s order, the State shall file in the court a memorandum explaining why sanctions or other remedial measures should not be imposed,” reads the order, which was signed by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen.

The deicision was unanimous. Read the order for yourself here.

The case is named after parents Stephanie and Matthew McCleary, the lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in 2007 in King County. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in their favor and ordered the state to increase education spending enough to fulfill the Washington state Legislature’s own definition of what it would take to meet the state constitution’s requirement of providing a basic education to all Washington children.

Tom Ahearne, attorney for the plaintiffs, said Thursday he is  happy with the court’s decision. Even though it doesn’t force the Legislature to come up with a complete plan for fully funding public education before the end of this year, as the plaintiffs had asked, Ahearne says the court’s ruling asserts the justices can punish the Legislature in the future, and won’t hesitate to do so.

Ahearne said he didn’t know whether or not the Legislature will obey the ruling, but he’s optimistic.

“I am confident that more legislators than before are going to try to accomplish it rather than put it off,” he said.

Rep. Chad Magendanz, the ranking Republican on the House Education Committee, said this was the ruling lawmakers were hoping for.

“We’ve always been under the assumption we were going to show some substantial remedies [to funding] this cycle,” he said.

Magendanz said the ruling is “certainly more incentive to be done on time.”

“We will make it work,” he added.

Gov. Jay Inslee, in a prepared statement, called the Supreme Court’s order an “unprecedented action…in a critical moment in our history.”

“No one should be surprised, yet no one should minimize the court’s order,” he said. “I urged lawmakers to act this year and agreed with the court that we must do more to adequately fund education, which I believe is both a constitutional and moral obligation.”

“If we are to succeed now,” he added, “we will need the help of everyone in Washington state, not just 147 lawmakers, as we rise to the challenge to avoid the court’s pending sanctions.”

In its 2012 ruling, the court set a 2018 deadline to provide full funding for the state’s public schools.  That matched what the Legislature had promised, recognizing that it likely would take more than one legislative session to come up with the additional money, estimated at between $3.5 billion to $7 billion per two-year budget period. The money would go, among other things, toward school-bus transportation, smaller class sizes, schools’ daily operating costs and supplies such as paper and books.

State lawmakers added some of that money into its 2013-15 budget — an approximately $1 billion increase for education — but the justices in January said lawmakers weren’t moving fast enough and ordered them to submit a complete plan by the end of April for how they would meet the 2018 deadline.  The legislature did not do so, saying it could not come to agreement on one.

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