Washington State Supreme Court Holds Legislature In Contempt Over School Funding

Too frequently, even after a state supreme court finds the state’s school funding system unconstitutional, nothing much happens.  My state Ohio is the extreme example.  Three times the supreme court found Ohio’s school finance unconstitutional.  Then a fourth time the court spoke, reiterating that the system is unconstitutional but releasing jurisdiction in the case.  This meant the legislature no longer had an obligation to design a remedy.  Although the court found for the plaintiffs, nothing happened and nothing ever will.

Washington  state’s supreme court is taking a very different path.  In January of 2012 in what is known as the McCleary case, the state’s supreme court ruled in favor of the parent plaintiffs, and in the words of Joseph O’Sullivan of the Seattle Times, “ordered the state to increase education spending enough to fulfill the Washington state Legislature’s own definition of what it would take to meet the state constitution’s requirement of providing a basic education to all Washington children.”

Last week, on September 11, 2014, Washington’s supreme court spoke again to scold the legislature for dragging its feet.  In the original 2012 McCleary decision, the court gave Washington’s legislature what seemed like plenty of time to phase in a remedy—until the 2017-2018 school year, but the supreme court retained jurisdiction in the interim.  Last week the supreme court held the state legislature in contempt for failing to institute a time line that will ensure schools are fully funded by 2018.  The court has now given the legislature an ultimatum: get a remedy well underway by next year.  The Associated Press reports, “The court promised to reconvene and impose sanctions and other remedial measures if lawmakers do not make plans to solve the problem,” by the end of the legislative session in 2015.

Here is how—in the 2012 McCleary decision itself— the state’s supreme court justices interpreted the language of the education clause of Washington’s constitution.  Education spending must be “ample.”  “The word ‘ample’ in article IX, section 1 provides a broad constitutional guideline meaning fully sufficient, and considerably more than just adequate.  Ample funding for basic education must be accomplished by means of dependable and regular tax sources.  The State has not complied with its article IX, section 1 duty to make ample provision for the education of all children in Washington.”

The Associated Press reports that the legislature added $1 billion to the school fund in the recent budget, but cost studies that were the basis of the original McCleary decision indicated that the budget needs to be roughly $4 billion annually above the 2012 expenditure level. According to the Education Law Center, “Underfunded educational resources that the Legislature has identified as basic education include full-day kindergarten, more instructional hours for high school students, pupil transportation, a new formula for school staffing levels for smaller class sizes, and more state support for school equipment and supplies.”   Despite the foot dragging, legislators interviewed by the Seattle Times about the court’s recent action to hold the legislature in contempt seem to agree about the need for additional school funding. The ranking Republican on the House Education Committee is quoted: “We’ve always been under the assumption we were going to show some substantial remedies this cycle.”

Governor Jay Inslee commented: “I urged lawmakers to act this year and agreed with the court that we must do more to adequately fund education, which I believe is both a constitutional and moral obligation.”

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