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Washington State's High Court Threatens Sanctions Over K-12 Finance Overhaul

Washington state's highest court has warned lawmakers that it may hold the state in contempt of court—and threatened a range of economic sanctions—unless they can show they are making sufficient progress in overhauling what the court has ruled is an unconstitutional K-12 funding system. 

The court gave the state until Aug. 25 to muster its arguments on why it should not be held in contempt, and set a show cause hearing for Sept. 3.

The June 12 order from the state Supreme Court is the latest move in a long-running battle over the constitutionality of the state's public schools financing. At the start of 2012, the court ruled in the McCleary v. Washington case that the state was violating its legal obligation to fund K-12 properly, and gave the legislature six years to change how its education budget worked.

Even though the changes don't have to be in full effect until the 2017-18 school year, state lawmakers haven't made the progress they envisioned, as they admitted in a report delivered to the court at the end of April. For example, lawmakers have approved increases of about $1 billion to K-12 since the McCleary ruling, but that falls short of the $1.4 billion in new cash officials envisioned would be approved by now to keep the state on track to satisfy the court by 2018.

In its latest response to lawmakers, the court said that unless lawmakers can show that they're on the right path and should be trusted to continue their work, the court could order steps that could include monetary sanctions—or even prevent public schools from being funded in any way under "an unconstitutional education system." Other sanctions could ordering state property to be sold to cover K-12 costs, and ordering the legislature to approve specific education-funding increases.

Legislators had a mixed reaction. Republican Sen. Michael Baumgartner complained to the The News Tribune in Tacoma that the court was pushing the state toward a "constitutional crisis" by seizing power and discretion from the legislature: "We need to educate kids. Why would we allow schools to shut down just because the Supreme Court said so?"

But Democratic Rep. Ross Hunter, a budget-writer in the legislature, says it's appropriate for the court to apply pressure on the legislature in light of McCleary. Hunter, by the way, thinks it could take an additional $6.8 billion in school funding between 2012 and 2018 to satisfy the court.
 
Read the court order below:
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