Court fines Washington state over education funding

by: KIRO 7 STAFF Updated:

Loading

The Washington state Supreme Court has ordered that the state pay $100,000 a day in sanctions, starting immediately, for its lack of progress toward fully paying the cost of basic education.

Now some are suggesting new taxes may be the only way to close the gap.


QUICK FACTS:

  • Lawmakers need to find almost a billion more dollars each year for education before 2018
  • The $100,000 fine will go into a fund for basic education
  • Fines could be returned to the state for general use if a special session is called and the funding gap is closed.

In its ruling Thursday, the court encouraged Gov. Jay Inslee to call a special legislative session to address the issue, saying that if the Legislature complies with the court's previous rulings for the state to deliver a plan to fully fund education, the penalties accrued during a special session would be refunded.

When KIRO 7 reached out to Inslee for questions, he said he has not been able to talk to Attorney General Ferguson and other key players. He said there is a funeral for a state senator on Thursday.

<center>https://twitter.com/JoannaKIRO7/status/631975263673319424</center>

Inslee told KIRO 7 he plans to meet with leaders on Monday, when fines will be at $300,000.

State Superintendent Randy Dorn said new taxes, including income tax changes and property tax changes should be on the table to fully fund education.  The Washington Education Association, which speaks for school workers, echoed that possibility.

Inslee released two written statements on Friday: 

“[Thursday's] order from the Supreme Court acknowledges that significant progress has been made toward meeting the state’s obligation to adequately fund basic education. But everyone understood that even with those historic investments in education, our work would not be done," he said.  “The court today made it clear that bolder and more aggressive action is needed to support Washington’s students and their teachers. The detailed plan the court demands in order to fulfill our constitutional obligation will be more complex and expensive than the significant steps we’ve already taken.”

“At my request, legislative leaders agreed during a conference call earlier today to meet with me Monday to begin the necessary and difficult work before us. There is much that needs to be done before a special session can be called. I will ask lawmakers to do that work as quickly as humanly possible so that they can step up to our constitutional and moral obligations to our children and lift the court sanctions.”

The League of Education Voters, which advocates for improved education spending, estimates it may take a billion more dollars each year to satisfy the state supreme court.

However, after it took months to reach a budget deal—including a lot more education funding-- some lawmakers feel Thursday’s court ruling is just wrong.

Ellensburg Republican Matt Manweller tweeted: "The Washington Supreme Court has gone rogue. It is time for articles of impeachment."

>> A look back in time at Washington's education lawsuit

Thursday's ruling was the latest development in a long-running impasse between lawmakers and justices, who in 2012 ruled that the state is failing to meet its constitutional duty to pay for the cost of basic education for its 1 million schoolchildren.

Most states have faced lawsuits over the way they pay for education, but few have seen that conflict result in a contempt order like the one issued in Washington, one expert said.

Thomas Ahearne, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said that the court's action "is long overdue."

"The state has known for many, many years that it's violating the constitutional rights of our public school kids," Ahearne said. "And the state has been told by the court in rulings in this case to fix it, and the state has just been dillydallying along."

The lawsuit against the state was brought by a coalition of school districts, parents, teachers and education groups — known as the McCleary case for the family named in the suit.

Below is a timeline of the case.

<center><iframe src="https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B4PA_QMojbFERkZBdzRqSE1NZTQ/preview" width="100%" height="480"></iframe></center>

In its original ruling, and repeated in later follow-up rulings, the justices have told the Legislature to find a way to pay for the reforms and programs they had already adopted, including all-day kindergarten, smaller class sizes, student transportation and classroom supplies, and to fix the state's overreliance on local tax levies to pay for education. Relying heavily on local tax levies leads to big disparities in funding between school districts, experts say.

If Inslee and the Legislature choose to ignore the court's order until the next scheduled legislative session begins Jan. 11, 2016, the state would end up paying about $15 million in sanctions — a small amount in the face of the current two-year $38 billion state operating budget that includes more than $300 million in reserves that can be tapped by lawmakers.

Earlier this year, the Legislature approved what it called a $1.3 billion down payment toward fully paying the cost of basic education, an amount critics said fell billions of dollars short.

Last month, the attorney general's office argued in a filing to the court that it should dissolve its current contempt order against the state. Senior Assistant Attorney General David Stolier wrote about the various ways the Legislature has fulfilled the high court's 2012 McCleary decision on the funding, and he said the state is on schedule to meet all the requirements of the court.

While the court acknowledged that progress was made by lawmakers during this year's triple overtime legislative session, it said the state failed to provide a plan for full compliance by the 2018 deadline.

"We believe every person in Washington understands that providing for education is the State’s paramount duty under the state constitution, and without a comprehensive education plan, the state is not on target to meet its constitutional obligation by the deadline it set for the 2017-18 school year," Chief Justice Barbara Madsen said.

Washington is in the middle of the pack when it comes to per-student school spending.

The latest numbers from 2013, show the education money breaks down to about $9,600 spent per student.

New York was topping with $19,000 per student. Idaho was dead last with a third of that.

Want to talk about the news of the day? Watch free streaming video on the KIRO 7 mobile app and iPad app, and join us here on Facebook.

The Associated Press contributed to this report