State lawmakers must explain education funding delays to Supreme Court in lawsuit with roots in Jefferson County

By Donna Gordon Blankinship
The Associated Press

SEATTLE — The state Supreme Court has ordered lawmakers to explain why they haven’t followed its orders to fix the way Washington pays for public education.

The court Thursday ordered the state to appear before it Sept. 3 and show the court how it has followed its orders in the 2012 McCleary decision or face contempt.

The attorney for the coalition that sued the state over education funding was happy to see the court order issued Thursday.

“I’m very excited because it shows that they are taking the state’s violations seriously,” said Thomas Ahearne.

The McCleary decision upheld the efforts of a coalition that won a lawsuit on school funding in King County Superior Court in February 2010.

The leader of the coalition was then-Chimacum School District Superintendent Mike Blair. Blair, who retired as Chimacum superintendent in 2010, led the plaintiff Network for Excellence in Washington Schools.

The lead lawsuit petitioner was Stephanie McCleary, his former administrative assistant who had two children in Chimacum schools.

The McCleary decision said lawmakers are not meeting their constitutional responsibility to fully pay for basic education and are relying too much on local tax-levy dollars to balance the education budget.

They were given until the 2017-18 school year to fix the problem.

The Legislature has been making yearly progress reports on its efforts to fulfill the McCleary decision, and every year, the court has said in response that lawmakers aren’t doing enough.

“I don’t know of anyone who likes to be called into court,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington.

“I’m disappointed that we are where we are.”

The most recent report to the court, filed at the end of April, acknowledged that the Legislature didn’t make a lot of progress in 2014 but said members have ideas for fixing that situation during the 2015 legislative session.

A total of $982 million will be added to state education spending over the next two years, with most of the money going to classroom supplies, student transportation and the Learning Assistance Program for struggling students.

The Legislature also made down-payments toward all-day kindergarten and smaller classes in the early grades.

Sullivan said lawmakers have fully anticipated they would need to solve the problem once the next legislative session begins in January.

“Regardless of what action the court does or doesn’t take, it doesn’t change what we have to do,” he said.

As much as $2.5 billion, by legislative estimates, will need to be added to the education budget to meet the obligations lawmakers have already identified for improving basic education and paying for it.

“I think the court is being very, very patient here, giving the state multiple opportunities to comply with the court orders, which frankly is more than most defendants get,” Ahearne said.

The state’s response strategy will become clear July 11, when its opening brief to the court is due.

Last modified: June 14. 2014 6:57PM
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