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Washington State High Court Justices Grill Attorney for State On School Funding

Justices on the Washington State Supreme Court aggressively questioned an attorney for the state Wednesday on why they should give state lawmakers more time to detail how they would dramatically increase K-12 spending. 

The court called the hearing to determine why the state should not be held in contempt for failing to abide by two previous court orders, in 2012 and 2014, requiring lawmakers to outline a detailed plan for funding state education to satisfactory levels. In 2012's McCleary v. State of Washington ruling, the court found the state's K-12 budget to be constitutionally inadequate.

While the justices did not rule from the bench on Wednesday, several of them seemed strongly skeptical that sitting back and trusting the legislature would produce different results than the relatiely modest funding increases approved so far. The state has until 2018 to constitutionally fund education under the McCleary ruling. If the court finds the state in contempt, it could take actions that would impact some or all of the state's future spending.

Noting the colloquialism that doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result amounted to insanity, Justice Charles Wiggins asked Deputy Solicitor General Alan Copsey, who represented the state as the defendant, "Why should we think that you're going to do something different?"

Copsey in turn told the state's highest court that finding the state in contempt would hurt lawmakers' ongoing efforts to locate adequate revenue to boost K-12 spending. 

"2015 matters more than anything that the legislature can say today," Copsey told the court, referring to next year's legislative session when the state will pass a two-year operating budget. "The passage of time matters in this case. There's no disagreement that education needs to be more fully funded."

Justice Sheryl McCloud said Copsey's focus on revenue was at least a new line of argument for the state in terms of necessary actions in 2015.

Justice Charles Johnson asked why the court shouldn't simply invalidate special tax breaks and then require lawmakers to re-adopt them if they chooses, but only after they fund education up to the constitutional standard. Copsey replied that while that would be an efficient remedy, the court would be overstepping its authority in doing so.

Thomas Ahearne, an attorney for the plaintiffs in McCleary, a group of parents, unions, and school districts, said the court should "call a spade a spade" and hold the legislature in contempt. The legislature should be required to produce a plan by the end of 2014, before the 2015 session starts, he added.

"Washington lawmakers should actually obey the law," Ahearne told the court. "The court orders in this case aren't fiction."

Brief History of McCleary 

The roots of the protracted saga over school funding in the Evergreen State go back to January 2012. In the McCleary ruling, the state supreme court said the state was failing to abide by its constitution, which says that it is the "paramount duty" of the state to "make ample provision" for public education. The court gave lawmakers until 2018 to dramatically increase spending for public schools.

In 2009 and 2010, the state legislature had approved bills to overhaul and enhance the state's funding of K-12. Later in 2012, in response to the McCleary ruling, the legislature told the court that it would use those pieces of legislation as the basis for future efforts to increase the state's education budget.  

Lawmakers subsequently approved a biennial budget for 2013-15 that included a $982 million increase for basic education, although the McCleary plaintiffs have argued that the figure is actually $649 million because certain cost-of-living increases for school employees were eliminated in the same budget.

The state high court, in a review of the legislature's actions in 2013 published last January, said that while the new budget represented some progress toward satisfying its ruling, it represented only a 6.7 percent increase over the spending levels the court found unconstitutional in 2012, and that there were only two budget cycles left before the 2018 deadline set by the court. The justices noted a particular failure by the state to boost funding for materials and operations costs, as well as for additional school personnel.

"We have no wish to be forced into entering specific funding directives to the State, or, as some state high courts have done, hold the legislature in contempt of court. But, it is incumbent upon the State to demonstrate, through immediate, concrete action, that it is making real and measurable progress, not simply promises," the court stated.

During the 2014 legislative session, when legislators could supplement the 2013-15 budget, lawmakers added $58 million to the basic K-12 budget. But officials showed virtually no appetite for holding a special legislative session this year to further address with K-12 funding.

Crisis Heats Up

In June, the court, which has consistently expressed skepticism about the state's overall progress in increasing K-12 spending, said definitively that lawmakers' efforts were both inadequate and behind schedule.

Despite its previously stated reluctance to force remedies on the legislature, the court said that unless the state could show why it should not be held in contempt of court during the Sept. 3 hearing, the justices could decide to block the state's "unconstitutional" spending on K-12, force the sale of assets to pay for education spending increases, or take other actions.

Amicus briefs filed since that June court order by state Superintendent Randy Dorn and five former governors argued that lawmakers should be given another chance in the 2015 session to make dramatic progress. But Dorn also said that if such progress isn't made next year when the 2015-17 budget is approved, then the court should wield a "hammer" and impose clear consequences on the legislature.

The plaintiffs responded last month by saying that 2015 is too long to wait for the court to take action, and cited the past statements of some governors urging immediate action to overhaul K-12 spending going back to 1977.

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