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School Funding Fight Back in Hands of Washington State's Supreme Court

After a tumultuous special legislative session this year that saw a boost for K-12 spending, Washington state officials are telling the state's highest court: Stop holding us in contempt. But advocates who believe lawmakers are still falling short are instead telling the court to either levy sanctions or walk away.

If the court ends up agreeing with those advocates, sanctions against the state could follow, including a ban on spending state funds on budget areas other than public education.

A quick review: Last year, the state's supreme court held the state in contempt for failing to adequately respond to a 2012 ruling in the McCleary v. Washington case. That ruling found the state to be delinquent in its constitutional duty to make providing for a public education its "paramount duty" by not providing enough money for schools. Lawmakers responded by boosting school spending by roughly $1 billion in its 2013-15 biennial budget, but that didn't prevent the supreme court's 2014 contempt ruling

This year, lawmakers had to head to a special session to finalize a deal to increase spending on K-12 for the 2015-17 budget, with Democrats and Republicans advocating for different approaches. According to a report filed by lawmakers with the supreme court July 27, the final 2015-17 budget deal, combined with the funding increase from 2013-15, has increased education spending by about $4.8 billion (up to $18 billion in the biennial budget) from where state spending stood in 2012, when the court issued its McCleary ruling.

The McCleary ruling gave lawmakers until 2018 to meet its requirements. 

The report from lawmakers to the court acknowledged that they are still seeking a way to fulfill a portion of the court's 2012 ruling that state funding replace local levies for K-12 salaries. However, the report stated, "Although work remains to be done, the 2015 Legislature's actions move the State closer to ultimate constitutional compliance than any written plan would have done, and continuing to demand a plan at this point would serve no useful purpose."

Not so, said Thomas Ahearne, a lawyer for the McCleary plaintiffs. Arguing that the budget shouldn't get the court's contempt order off the state's back, he added that, "The time has come for this court to make what some would call a 'fish or cut bait' decision" from the court. If the court is truly serious about getting the state to meet its constitutional mandate for K-12, he argued, then it will impose sanctions. 

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