What to expect when you’re expecting a McCleary decision
The Washington State Supreme Court has heard arguments over whether the Legislature has finally fully funded K-12 education. Now, Washington waits for yet another McCleary decision.
What happens if the court says the state is still under-funding education?
“I think it’s highly unlikely they will reach that conclusion because the Legislature did take another big step forward to funding basic education in the last session,” said former Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna. “They’ve almost doubled state funding per-pupil to $12,000 a year now; by the year 2019-2020. And we’ll have the 5th highest per-pupil state spending in the country as a result. So I don’t think the court will go there.”
The 2012 McCleary decision put the state on the path to better fund K-12 education. The court concluded that lawmakers were not fully funding the schools, which is mandated by the state constitution. As attorney general, McKenna represented the state in the case.
Despite money added to the education budget over the past few years, the Supreme Court has previously found lawmakers in contempt for their slow progress on the issue. It fined the Legislature $100,000 a day until it started adequately funding the schools.
“As I understand it, in the budgeting process, the money equal to fines was put in a segregated account and then spent on education,” McKenna said. “It’s just taking out of one pocket and putting it into another. But I guess this means the Senate and House can cancel the planned bake sales and car washes that they otherwise would have had to organize.”
As the latest budget was crafted this year, many have watched to see if the Legislature has finally met the court’s demand.
“The first thing they will do is look at the state’s own laws,” McKenna said. “The reason we got into this position with the McCleary lawsuit and the resulting 9-0 Supreme Court decision … is that the Legislature passed a couple big bills that expanded the definition of basic education – for example adding preschool to the definition. And then it failed to provide enough funding. Instead, the Legislature kept pushing the responsibility off to local school districts. So this is a problem of the Legislature’s own making. But the good thing is that it’s a solution the Legislature can make as well.”
McKenna said there may be a bit more work for the Legislature to do in order to complete the job. But the job is mostly finished. Critics, however, claim that while the Legislature is providing funding in the budget, it is also taking money away from previously-passed levies (which were passed to make up for the state’s under-funding).
“I think that there will always be a tug-of-war and disagreements over the budget,” McKenna said. “… It’s getting harder and harder for the plaintiffs in the case to credibly claim that the budgets being passed are not meeting constitutional muster.”
“I think that there won’t be much basis for the Supreme Court to continue to hold them in contempt or threaten new action against the Legislature,” he said.