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Washington Supreme Court Extends Deadline in Funding Case

Washington's Supreme Court said last week it'll wait until the end of next year's legislative session before deciding to amp up its punishment for not properly addressing disparities in its funding formula.  

The state since last year has been fined $100,000 a day for every day they're in session and can't come up with a new school funding formula. 

It's the result of the 2012 McCleary v. State ruling in which the state supreme court ruled that Washington's funding formula didn't meet its constitutional obligations.  

Over the years, the court has prodded the legislature to more quickly overhaul its funding formula but the legislature has taken a piecemeal approach to the mandate.  

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.

During its 2016 session, the legislature passed a resolution to come up with a new funding formula by the end of 2017. Critics called it "a plan for a plan."  

Earlier this year, Randy Dorn, the state's superintendent of public instruction, filed a brief with the court asking it to threaten to close schools, along with several other remedies, in order to get the court to act.  

"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 political will to solve the problem." 

The court last week said it will ask for a progress report after the 2017 legislative session. But it also expressed its irritation with the state's legislature.  

According to the Seattle Times, the justices wrote in the order, "the State continues to provide a promise—'we'll get there'—rather than a concrete plan for how it will meet its paramount duty" to fund K-12 education.

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."

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