State Supreme Court to hear school funding debate starting Wednesday

The hearing marks the latest development in the McCleary case — a 2012 ruling that said the Legislature has failed to fully fund education.

The Associated Press

OLYMPIA — Attorneys for Washington state are scheduled to appear before the state Supreme Court on Wednesday to argue that lawmakers have complied with court orders to boost public school funding.

On the other side of the courtroom will be attorneys for a coalition of parents, school districts and education groups that maintain lawmakers haven’t done enough.

Wednesday’s hearing marks the latest development in the McCleary case — a 2012 ruling that said the Legislature has failed to fully fund education and must correct those problems by 2018, according to the (Tacoma) News Tribune.

The decision is named for Stephanie McCleary, a Sequim native who is a Chimacum parent and school district human resources director.

The state is now in contempt of court and accruing fines of $100,000 a day over the Legislature’s failure to produce a plan to meet the 2018 funding deadline.

On Wednesday, the court will hear arguments to help them decide whether to lift the sanctions or impose more serious penalties that could dramatically alter next year’s budget debates at the state Capitol.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers passed legislation forming a task force to work on school-funding issues and promising to fix remaining problems in 2017.

Attorneys for the state argue that measure constitutes the funding plan the court asked for, while attorneys for the McCleary plaintiffs say it’s just another empty promise.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to ensure the Legislature keeps its word by promising to dramatically increase sanctions in the future if lawmakers don’t follow through.

That could mean issuing an order that will shut down the state’s school system next fall if lawmakers fail to act by then, or striking down all state-approved tax breaks as unconstitutional on the first day of the 2017-18 school year. Those options are advocated by the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, Thomas Ahearne, in the most recent brief he filed with the court.

The threat of delayed sanctions — as opposed to ones that would take effect immediately — would avoid an urgent crisis that might force Gov. Jay Inslee to call a special session of the Legislature to address.

As it stands, lawmakers aren’t scheduled to reconvene until January, when they are expected to spend six months or more hashing out a solution next year.

Either of Ahearne’s proposed sanctions would give lawmakers time to do that work.

Alternatively, the court could ramp up sanctions even sooner than the McCleary plaintiffs suggest — called the nuclear option.

That could mean issuing an order in the coming months that immediately shuts down schools, or invalidates billions of dollars in corporate tax breaks — a step that could prompt an emergency session of the Legislature, or at a minimum force lawmakers to come up with a solution much sooner in 2017 than they had planned.

Taking this step would enrage many lawmakers who already think the state Supreme Court has overstepped its bounds by demanding a funding plan and monitoring the Legislature’s progress in the McCleary case.

The court could also do nothing. It could acknowledge the progress the Legislature has made addressing many problems outlined in the McCleary ruling, and simply continue to impose the $100,000-a-day in fines that it first ordered in August 2015.

To date, those fines total more than $37 million, which the court ordered to be placed in a separate account to benefit basic education.

The court could lift the fines, along with its 2014 order finding the state in contempt of court.

It’s hard to say how long a ruling might take. It will likely come within three or four months, before the Legislature reconvenes in January.