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Washington State Chief Backs School Shutdown as Funding-Fight Option

Kansas, you're not alone. 

Randy Dorn, Washington's superintendent of public instruction, has told the state's supreme court in an amicus brief that it should do what Kansas' court did and threaten to shut the state's school system down if the legislature continues to ignore its demand to fix its school-funding formula.  

In the brief filed Wednesday, Dorn said that the legislature has acted far too slowly in fixing the state's funding formula which the court deemed unconstitutional in 2012, and he said the court shouldn't tolerate it. The $100,000-a-day fine the court has levied on the state has so far failed to produce a new funding formula acceptable to the court. 

"Fully funding basic education is a very complex political and policy problem that the legislature must treat with real urgency," Dorn wrote. "The court cannot simply rely on the legislature's promise. The legislature must act. More effective sanctions are required for the legislature to have the policital will to solve the problem." 

While the legislature has expanded all-day kindergarten, and increased transportation funding, among other things, it has yet to fix the funding formula so that local property owners aren't left paying the majority of teachers' salaries. That effort is expected to cost the state an estimated $3.2 billion every two years, according to the Seattle Times.   

This past session, lawmakers passed a bill that establishes a task force to design a new funding formula, which the legislature will vote on during the 2017 session. Many called it a "plan for a plan" and a "punt." 

"The problem is not a lack of information," Dorn wrote in his brief. "It is the lack of political will to use the information. Instead of solving the problem, the 2016 legislature kicked the can down the road and appointed another task force." 

In the 18-page amicus brief, Dorn suggests that the court hold individual legislators in contempt of court, require them to pay fines to the court out of their own pocket (to be reimbursed after they fix the funding formula); have county treasurers withold special levy dollars reserved for local school districts; put a halt to a series of tax breaks the legislature gave to local businesses in recent years; and, finally, shut the public school system down. 

"Closing schools is harmful to the students. ... however ... closing the schools cannot be ruled out a possible remedy," he said citing a 1976 case in which New Jersey's state supreme court witheld funding from the schools, forcing a temporary shutdown.  

Dorn, who's elected and has a term that ends at the end of this year, has grown increasingly frustrated with the legislature's actions regarding the state's education-funding formula.  

In January, he refused to listen to Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee's governor's State of the State address when he first proposed his task force solution, instead leaving a note on the chair reserved for the state superintendent that read, "'Reserved for kids and students."   

In an interview with me in February, Dorn said he was considering suing the state himself.  

"I still believe that we don't have a strong enough internal force to force the legislature to do its job, but I think it's coming to a head that our state may have to look at its whole tax system in the 21st century," Dorn said.  "We have one of the least-fair systems in the nation. This is the Armageddon. It's a culminating moment of McCleary." 

At one point this year, Dorn flirted with a run for the governor, but said earlier this month it wasn't feasible.  

For a story I wrote in a recent Education Week issue about funding formula cases, Richard Levy, a legal scholar at the University of Kansas, said forcing legislatures to adhere to court orders has been, historically, very challenging. 

"What would they do if the legislature says no?" Levy said. "You can't jail legislators, because they have legislative immunity."

Meanwhile, in Kansas where the court system actually did threaten to shut down school funding if lawmakers don't fix their funding formula by June 30, GOP leaders are preparing for a special session June 23 where they're expected to debate how to give at least $38 million more to the state's poorest districts.  

GOP's party letters also are threatening school district officials with a $5,000 fine if they use their work e-mails to campaign against legislators for not supporting more school funding. 

After endorsing providing the state's poor districts with $38 million, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, made one of his first public statements on Thursday on a local radio show to gripe about the justices' order and the anxiety that's roiled the state in recent weeks.   

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