An attorney for the state of Washington assured the justices of the state’s Supreme Court on Wednesday that lawmakers are making strides toward adequately funding the state’s public schools.
“We have benchmarks, deadlines and a firm commitment by the Legislature to take action in the 2017 (session),” said Alan Copsey, deputy solicitor general, arguing that the court should purge the contempt order and lift the $100,000-a-day sanction it has imposed.
But Thomas Ahearne, who represents the McCleary family and other plaintiffs suing the state for not fulfilling its constitutional duty to fully fund basic education, likened the debate to a merry-go-round going in circles.
The state’s justices also appeared skeptical at times.
“What happens if it doesn’t take place in the 2017 Legislature?” Justice Susan Owens asked Copsey, adding that she’s heard similar promises in the past that never materialized.
The justices asked the attorneys whether the sanctions had been effective and whether the court should increase the stakes to spur legislators into action. The court’s goal was to determine whether legislators have a road map for fulfilling their 2012 McCleary mandate.
In 2014, convinced lawmakers weren’t making adequate progress, the court found the state in contempt of court. Later, the justices imposed a $100,000-a-day sanction.
In the most recent legislative session, lawmakers established a task force to consider how to reduce school districts’ reliance on levies and how to ensure teachers are being adequately paid.
Ahearne, the attorney on behalf of the plaintiffs, said that unless another solution is proposed, the Legislature should close current tax exemptions to fund schools.
“This isn’t an example of the state being asleep at the switch. They’ve been staring right at the switch and knowing it’s there and just ignoring (it) until the very last second,” Ahearne said of lawmakers.
State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, is a member of the bipartisan task force charged with tackling McCleary, which had a meeting on Tuesday.
“I’m going to remain solidly focused on the plan we have put in place and the good work so far,” Rivers said. “(The court) is going to do what they are going to do, and we’ll keep doing what we’re doing. … We’re both trying to keep the best interest of students in mind. We just have different approaches.”
Vancouver Public Schools Superintendent Steve Webb said he hopes the court isn’t afraid to act.
“I believe our elected leaders also understand what is required of them in this upcoming session. Whether or not they have the political will to deliver a solution is another matter,” Webb said in an email. “Failure to do so, in my opinion, would warrant an immediate and assertive response from the Court to compel the Legislature to uphold the law. At the end of the day, providing full funding for our K-12 schools is about equitable opportunities for all of Washington’s children.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.