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School fine has Olympia’s attention

Gov. Jay Inslee (2015) Credit: John Stang

The $100,000 daily fine got the governor and Legislature’s attention.

Gov. Jay Inslee and members of the Legislature’s four caucuses plan to meet Sept. 24 to begin talks on complying with a 2012 Washington Supreme Court ruling.

Last month, the court announced that it is fining the state $100,000 a day until the Legislature and governor come up with solid plans to comply with its so-called McCleary ruling. The 2012 decision orders that teacher-student ratios be drastically improved in Grades K-3 and permanently funded.

In their recent announcement, the nine justices wrote that the state lags behind on trimming K-3 class sizes to one teacher per 17 students by the 2018 school year, and that the needed appropriations for the work are lagging. Also, the Legislature has not come up with a written plan ensuring the long-term revenue will continue the 1-to-17 ratio.

On Friday, Inslee sent a letter to all legislators announcing the Sept. 24 closed meeting with two members each from the House and Senate Republican and Democratic caucuses. The eight legislators will include Sens. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale; Ann Rivers, R-La Center; Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island; and Andy Billig, D-Spokane. The House members will be Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, and Reps. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes; Norma Smith, R-Clinton; and Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah.

The participation of Rivers and Ericksen signals a shift in the attitude of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus, indicating it has put aside any plan to defy the Supreme Court. Several days ago, 18 Republicans and one Democrat in the GOP-dominated caucus sent a letter to the other three legislative caucuses, asking for help to combat the Supreme Court’s sanctions against the Legislature. The GOP senators argued that the court was overstepping its state and federal constitutional authority. Rivers and Ericksen were among the 18 GOP members who signed that letter, but now they are on the committee to find ways to comply with the ruling.

Rivers and Rolfes are co-authors of a bipartisan Senate plan unveiled at the end of the 2015 legislative session to increase state property taxes for education, removing the need for local education property taxes. This is supposed to bolster permanent education funding for teacher salaries to meet the McCleary obligations.

However, a pitfall looms. Republicans believe the property tax shift would raises sufficient new money by itself. Democrats believe other funding sources, such as a capital gains tax or closing some tax breaks, will be needed to supplement the property tax shift. That fundamental difference is likely to be difficult to resolve.

If the eight-person committee reaches an agreement on a package that would satisfy the court order by Nov. 19, Inslee plans to call a special session to pass new legislation in late November. Lawmakers are already scheduled to be in Olympia late that month for a series of committee meetings.

Also in Friday letter, the governor wrote that the new committee will not tackle the Supreme Court recent ruling that a charter school law is unconstitutional. And he does not plan to call for a special session to address that issue. Inslee noted he originally opposed the charter school initiative because it created schools with appointed — not elected — boards, which would receive tax money without being accountable to the public. The Supreme Court recent 6-3 ruling declared an influx of state money to the charter schools to be unconstitutional.

The Inslee administration is preparing a motion to submit to the Supreme Court on this subject, but has not decided yet on what approach it would take.

This story was first published on September 11.

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