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Court puts Legislature on notice: Do more for schools or face consequences

The Temple of Justice, where the Washington Supreme Court meets Credit: Cacophony/Wikimedia Commons

Washington's Legislature has until the end of its 2015 session to come up with a fix-it plan for state schools — or else.

Washington's Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday that the Legislature is in contempt of the 2012 McCleary case ruling that the state is not adequately providing a basic education for Washington's children.

"This unprecedented action by the Supreme Court is a critical moment in our history,” said Gov. Jay Inslee. “No one should be surprised, yet no one should minimize the court’s order. 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."

"All the excuses (legislators) tell themselves that they can delay and no one has to do anything, these are now gone," said Tom Ahearne, the Seattle attorney for the plaintiffs who won the 2012 ruling that the state is not meeting its constitutional obligations. Ahearne said the court’s decision to wait until the end of the 2015 session before deciding on any punishment is the practical solution. Anything nailed down in 2014 would still not go into effect until the beginning of the 2105-2016 fiscal biennium on July 1, 2015.

Thursday's ruling means three things.

First, the court does not agree with a Republican assertion that the justices are improperly meddling in legislative appropriations. Legislators, Ahearne said, drew a line in the sand saying the court can't tell the Legislature what to do. “What the order does is say: 'There ain't no such line in the sand,' " Ahearne said.

The second is that if the court is unhappy with the Legislature's progress in 2015, it will take some dramatic measure or meaures against the Legislature. One possible action would be the court nullifying all or part of the $32-$35 billion 2015-2017 biennial operating budget until the Legislature comes up with a McCleary-friendly plan. Another step could be the court nullifying all 650-plus Washington tax breaks, letting the Legislature use the additional revenue to cover all the McCleary obligations, and then allowing lawmakers to reinstate as many tax breaks as it wants.

The third result is that an already-vehement Democrat-vs.-Republican fight over closing tax breaks will likely kick up several notches in intensity.

The Supreme Court based its ruling of contempt on the Legislature’s having several chances to comply with the 2012 ruling failing to legitimately tackle the issue. Thursday’s ruling said the court cannot “stand idly by” as its orders are disregarded. “To do so would be to abdicate the court's own duty as a coordinate and independent branch of the government."

The main thrust of the 2012 McCleary ruling was that student-teacher ratios must be improved in grades K-3. The current K-3 ratio is 1 teacher per 25.3 students in any school in which poverty isn't widespread among students' families. In its 2012 ruling, the Supreme Court ordered Washington to comply with the 1 teacher per 17 students goal set by a 2009 state law. Complying with that lowered ratio would mean hiring many more teachers, and building additional classrooms by the 2018-2019 school year.

The cost of the court-mandated McCleary work from 2013 to 2019 is estimated at $4 to $4.5 billion in each two-year budget cycle. So far, lawmakers have raised about $1 billion for preliminary measures and the easiest McCleary work for 2013-2015. That leaves $3-$3.5 billion in additional steady revenues to be found for 2015-2019. But the Legislature has not addressed the student-teacher ratio issue. And the cost estimates don’t include the additional cash needed to revive long-dormant cost-of-living raises for teachers, which voters approved. Consequently, the Legislature finds itself behind in its legal obligations to raise new money.

Some Republican lawmakers want to change administrative procedures in education, especially empowering principals to hire and fire teachers, as an alternative to meeting the Supreme Court order. They'd also prefer to meet the McCleary obligations without closing tax breaks or installing new taxes. That means cuts to social services, which Democrats are not willing to do. The real power struggle has been between Inslee and the Democrat-controlled House on one side and the Republican-oriented Senate on the other.

Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, and chairman of the House Finance Committee, said, "We're going to have to look at tax exemptions, tax rates and tax credits.” In 2013 and 2104, the Democrats had proposed closing 10 to 15 tax breaks, mostly to fund the McCleary obligations. The Republicans oppose closing tax breaks because they view such measure as increasing taxes on already hard-hit people and businesses. GOP legislators grudgingly approved closing three tax breaks in the past two years.

The appropriate Republican senators could not be reached for comment Thursday. Normally, the 2105 session would be expected to end in mid-May. But the four-month 2013 session lasted until late June with both sides finally compromising because they did not want to be blamed for a partial state government shutdown that loomed on July 1. In the two-month 2014 session, legislators approved minor adjustments in the 2013-2015 budget and punted on any actions on the McCleary obligations.

Consequently, the Supreme Court is in a wait-and-see mode.

Its Thursday contempt ruling said: "The state has assured the court that education funding is the Legislature's top priority, and the Legislature is determined to (and the state expects it to) take meaning action in the 2015 budget session. In the interest of comity and continuing dialogue between the branches of government, the court accepts the state's assurance that it will be compliant by the end of the 2015 session." 

But the opinion, written by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen, added, "If the contempt is not purged by adjournment of the 2015 Legislature, the court will reconvene and impose sanctions or other remedial measures."

Washington's Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn agreed with the court on waiting to impose consequences but he said the justices could have been tougher.  "The Court should have been specific about the ramifications of not making adequate progress on full funding. I would have been more firm. But I agree with the Court that the state needs to see what happens in 2015." 

But we could find out then what "or else" means. 

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