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Washington State Has a K-12 Budget Deal, But Will the Court Like It?

After spending several weeks in special legislative sessions, Washington state lawmakers have agreed to a budget that includes a substantial increase for public schools. But will the spending plan pass muster with the state Supreme Court?

Lawmakers sent Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, a 2015-17 biennial budget that includes a $1.3 billion increase for K-12. According to the Seattle Times, that money will be used for reducing class sizes in grades K-3, expanding full-day kindergarten in the state, and bolstering other school services. That spending plan is designed to meet the requirements of a 2012 ruling from the state's top court, McCleary v. Washington, in which the majority of justices held that the state was failing to fund education at constitutional levels. The court specified that spending increases had to specifically focus on class size and the other areas outlined in the spending increase legislators laid out in their budget. 

Since that ruling, lawmakers have filed progress reports with the court, which has closely (and with increasing skepticism) watched the legislature's actions. Last year the court held the state in contempt for failing to meet the McCleary ruling, but agreed to hold off on imposing any sanctions until lawmakers completed their 2015 session. 

As I wrote about in May, during prolonged budget negotiations, Democrats at one point sought a total of $3.2 billion in additional education spending. Republicans countered with a $1.3 billion increase, and that number at least appears to have been the more popular option. Democrats did, however, score one victory when a cost-of-living increase for K-12 employees, to the tune of 3 percent over the next two years, was included in the final budget.

For some perspective, for the 2013-15 biennial budget, lawmakers increased K-12 spending by $982 million, up to about $15 billion total, but the court deemed that unsatisfactory. 

There was also extended wrangling about tax increases and changes to local collective bargaining that might have boosted total state support for K-12—those broader conversations about cost-sharing appear to have been put off for at least another year. 

Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn deemed the budget "unconstitutional," saying it actually increased the K-12 funding burden on local districts and thereby disregarded the main point of the McCleary ruling. Dorn had proposed his own 2015-17 spending plan that would have increased education spending by $2.2 billion. 

"This is no longer just a funding issue - it's a civil rights issue. Students lucky enough to live in wealthy neighborhoods are getting a 21st-century education, while schools in other neighborhoods make due with less," Dorn said in a statement.

So this summer promises to be a suspenseful one for Washington state lawmakers, Gov. Inslee, and public schools. Will the court find the 2015-17 budget unsatisfactory? And if so, what if any punishments will they impose on the state? Would the court go so far as to close public schools, as the New Jersey Supreme Court did briefly (during the summer) in 1976? Stay tuned. 

One more note: Lawmakers ultimately brushed off Initiative 1351, which voters approved last year and required the state to set class size limits of 15 to 17 students in K-3, and 22 to 25 students in grades 4-12. Legislators decided to put off implementing 1351, which would cost the state $2 billion, for four years. 

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