School funding drama building

If lawmakers hold back, what will state Supreme Court do?

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OLYMPIA — When the state Supreme Court recently threatened to hold lawmakers in contempt for shorting education, GOP Sen. Michael Baumgartner tweeted an image of a hammer and a bag of sand.

His message to the justices: “Go pound sand.”

It’s not a universally held position. Gov. Jay Inslee and House Democrats contend quick action is needed to keep the court at bay. But leaders of the GOP-led caucus in the Senate note lawmakers boosted education by $1 billion last year and say there’s no need to hurry.

The disagreement between the two parties suggests there will be no move to put more money into schools this year. It’s not even clear if the Legislature will come up with a plan — due April 30 — to fund education in a way that satisfies the court.

All this raises serious questions: What will the justices do if lawmakers don’t meet the court’s expectations? What can the court do?

In other states, faced with a similar situation, courts have closed down the school system, or threatened to do so, to pressure lawmakers. But a wide range of other options exist, including fining legislators if they don’t comply.

To a certain extent, it comes down to whether lawmakers feel the court is bluffing.

Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander advises the Legislature not to find out.

“If I were in the Legislature, I would take it seriously,” said Alexander, who served on the court from 1995 to 2011.

“I think the court laid down the gauntlet, and I think they will have to follow through. Otherwise their decision seems sort of meaningless — ‘We want you to abide by the constitution, but we’re not going to do anything if you don’t’ ?” he said.

The year’s showdown stems from a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling known as the McCleary case. The court ruled the Legislature was violating the state’s constitution by failing to provide ample funding for public K-12 education.

It gave lawmakers until 2018 to raise education spending by an additional $3.5 billion to $7 billion per biennium, depending on whether the total includes more state money for teacher pay. It based the order on the Legislature’s own definition of what it means to provide a basic education for the state’s 1 million students.

Ten days ago, the court turned up the pressure by issuing an order that knocks lawmakers for moving too slowly. While it credited the Legislature for taking “meaningful steps” in the 2013-15 budget, it also hammered lawmakers for not being on pace to meet the 2018 deadline for full funding.

The justices set an April 30 deadline for the Legislature to come up with a year-by-year plan to meet the court’s requirements.