State Supreme Court weighs arguments over school funding

Oct 24, 2017, 9:58 AM | Updated: 12:50 pm
olympia, government employees...
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Has the Legislature done enough to meet the court-ordered mandate to fully fund basic education?

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The state says yes. A group of parents, school districts, and other education professionals say no.

Lawyers for both sides are making their case Tuesday as the McCleary fight heads back to the state Supreme Court.

The fight that began back in 2007 when Stephanie McCleary — an employee at the Chimacum School District and a parent, along with other parents and education groups — sued the state for not doing enough to fully fund basic education.

After years of court battles, the state Supreme Court ruled in 2012 the state wasn’t meeting its constitutional paramount duty to amply fund education and ordered it to do so.

By the end of the 2015 Legislative session, lawmakers still hadn’t done enough, so the court began imposing fines of $100,000 a day. Those now total roughly $80 million.

Finally, after the latest legislative session, which included several special sessions, Governor Jay Inslee announced lawmakers had finally passed a budget that would do the trick.

“For the first time in decades, the budget will fully fund education,” he said.

Inslee was confident the budget, which includes $7.3 billion in state spending over four years to fix school funding, was enough to satisfy the court on the McCleary issue.

“We believe we have met the constitutional obligation to our children, but more importantly that we have met our moral and familial obligation to our children,” he said.

But attorney Tom Ahearne, who has led the McCleary lawsuit from the beginning, says the group he represents disagrees.

Ahearne says the math just doesn’t add up. The state, he says, claims to be adding billions of dollars

“You’re adding state dollars. But at the same time, you’re taking away local levy dollars. For example, if your employer says I’m going to give you a hundred-dollar raise, but I’m going to take thirty dollars away from you, that’s not a hundred-dollar raise. It’s a seventy-dollar raise. And then, also, the numbers the state is floating don’t account for the costs that they’ve added for school districts.”

Ahearne says, “The state has said that K-3 class sizes have to be seventeen students per classroom and day kindergarten now has to be expanded to full-day kindergarten. To have smaller class sizes and full-day kindergarten you need more classrooms. So school districts have to build more classrooms, but the state’s not funding the mandate of having those smaller class sizes or all-day kindergarten. Those are examples of costs that are being added but not being funded.”

Ahearne says the state’s funding package is also going to miss the court-imposed deadline to fully fund education by Sept. 1, 2018, with only $1.8 billion of new education funding expected to go to schools in the next two years and the rest coming in the following two years.

Several school districts also say the spending plan isn’t good enough, including Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia. In fact, 207 of the state’s 295 school districts are members of the group Network for Excellence in Washington Schools — or NEWS — which is one of the plaintiffs in the case.

Chris Reykdal, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, tells The Seattle Times, the spending plan is progress but he isn’t shy about saying the state “came up short,” especially in special education funding.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson will argue, in court, that the state has met its constitutional requirement to fully fund education. Ferguson says, in court filings, the education funding package will leave every school district with more money than they would have had under the past law, and more money to pay educators.

But Ahearne says that’s not good enough.

“The Supreme Court’s been very clear. They have to amply fund actual cost of fully implementing the components of the state’s own basic education program. The state defines what the program is. For example, the all-day kindergarten, the K-3 class sizes of 17 kids. It’s the state Legislature who said that’s our program. And the Supreme Court has said … the Constitution requires you to be amply funding the actual cost of doing that.”

What that actual cost is depends on who you ask. Ahearne believes its more than $4 billion a year, while a former state superintendent of schools chief put the number at around $3.8 billion a year and some lawmakers had it at about $1.76 billion a year — or about $7 billion over four years. That’s similar to the $7.3 billion, four-year plan the Legislature just approved.

Tuesday’s arguments are expected to be the last step before the court decides whether the state met its obligation.

A decision is expected in a written ruling sometime after the hearing and there are a few possible outcomes.

The court could decide the Legislature failed to meet its requirements and order it to go back to work while continuing to find it in contempt of court and continue the $100,000 a day fines. It could also reduce the fines or lift them all together but retain jurisdiction and ask the state to come up with a better plan. It could also find the state has met its requirements and be done with the issue.

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State Supreme Court weighs arguments over school funding