State Supreme Court threatens to hold legislature in contempt over school funding

by: Essex Porter Updated:

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The quality and cost of your child's education could be decided by the state Supreme Court, instead of the lawmakers who are supposed to make those decisions. Justices have scheduled a hearing in September to determine whether lawmakers should be held in contempt for failing to fully fund basic education. The court could impose sanctions, including ordering new taxes, or take money from the budget to pay for schools.

 “The court hasn't overstepped its bounds yet, from my point of view. That is not a view that is universally held in the legislature,” House Appropriations Chair Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said.

 Critics point out that the state doesn’t pay for full-day kindergarten, doesn’t pay for enough science and math classes and spends less than the national average per student each year.

 “If the court were to go as far as to issue specific orders demanding things to happen and the legislature were to say ‘no,’ and everybody were to go to the barricades, that creates a constitutional crisis,” said Seattle University constitutional-law professor Andrew Siegal.

Could the Supreme Court order an income tax to pay for education improvements?

 “They could order the legislature to impose a tax; almost certainly they couldn't specify the details of the tax,” Siegal said

Hunter says a September hearing does give lawmakers time to avoid whatever sanctions might come. 

“I actually don't want to find out,” Hunter said. “Frankly I think we will be better off if the legislature actually complies.”

We asked Siegal whether the court could send lawmakers to jail for contempt, but he said U.S. Supreme Court rulings make that unlikely.

The hearing will be held on Sept. 3, the first day of school for many districts.

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