Although lawmakers closed up shop in Olympia three months ago and declared the legislative session to be a triumph, the celebration might have been premature. The real contest will be waged today before the state Supreme Court.
While the hope is that the Legislature completed its paramount duty and provided ample funding for public schools, justices will have the final say. If the court deems that funding to be inadequate, it will be back to class for lawmakers.
Since the court’s 2012 decision in McCleary v. Washington, lawmakers have been slow to meet the duties spelled out in the state constitution. In short, those duties call for full state funding of public education, rather than having school districts depend upon local levies to make up for shortcomings. When districts rely upon levies to pay for basics such as teachers’ salaries, then lawmakers have failed to do their jobs.
During this year’s session, the Legislature directed $7.3 billion in new spending over the next four years toward public schools. This was the result of a complex property-tax shift that proponents say will help poor school districts and will meet the court’s mandate. As state Attorney General Bob Ferguson wrote in a court brief: “The State is in compliance. No further remedy is necessary. The Court need not retain jurisdiction any longer. It is time for this case to end.”
That would be the ideal scenario, considering that the McCleary decision has hovered over the heads of lawmakers and taxpayers for five years. But being hopeful that the Legislature has performed its duty is not the same as being convinced; we will reserve judgment on whether the court should agree with Ferguson’s assessment, recognizing the intricacies of the issue and the fact that strong arguments remain.
Those intricacies led the Supreme Court to hold lawmakers in contempt and issue a fine $100,000 per day because of lawmakers’ inability to meet the McCleary mandate. The fines now total more than $80 million.
While legislators hope the court will deem their work to be adequate, a coalition of parents and educators will argue that it is not. Last month, Vancouver Public Schools Superintendent Steven Webb wrote that the new budget “inadequately addresses the essential principle of the McCleary order — ample funding.” Thomas Ahearne, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, wrote in a court brief that lawmakers made “real and measurable progress,” but they didn’t “cross that finish line.”
Regardless of the Supreme Court’s eventual decision, the goal must be to provide adequate public education to all Washington students. While many Republican lawmakers have spent five years decrying the court’s oversight of the issue — often when they should have been working toward a solution — the importance of education is inarguable. There are valid reasons the state constitution clearly says it is the Legislature’s “paramount duty.”
A quality education is not defined solely by the amount of money spent. But lawmakers should focus on their jobs instead suggesting that Supreme Court justices should go pound sand.
When a decision on today’s arguments is rendered, lawmakers might or might not be told to get back to work on school funding. Ideally, this year’s solution will be deemed acceptable. If it is not, the Legislature must work for the benefit of Washington students rather than questioning the dictate of the court.