Law & Courts

Contempt Ruling Slams Wash. Lawmakers on K-12 Funding

By Andrew Ujifusa — September 12, 2014 4 min read
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After Washington state’s highest court found lawmakers in contempt this week for failing to produce a long-term plan to substantially increase K-12 funding, legislators face two choices: Produce such a plan during the legislative session next year or get hit with penalties by the court.

The Washington Supreme Court ruled Sept. 11 that its finding of contempt was the “culmination of a long series of events,” in which the state has failed to take sufficient action to overhaul school funding since 2012. That year, the court ruled in McCleary v. State of Washington that the state’s funding for public schools was inadequate and violated the state constitution.

In its latest ruling, the court did not specify what penalties it would levy if lawmakers fail to act. But previously, the court has said that possible punishments could include a prohibition on any funding for the state’s K-12 system, a requirement for the state to sell assets to increase education spending, and a prohibition on non-education spending.

“They’ve had an opportunity to think about it, to study it, to look at something,” said John L. Myers, a vice president at Augenblick, Palaich and Associates Consulting in Denver who has studied school finance lawsuits, referring to legislators. “You would think in the 2015 session, they’re going to have to come up with something.”

Painted Into a Corner

The court finding of contempt applies specifically to lawmakers’ failure to abide by an order issued in January that the state must present a plan for how it would increase state funding for public schools. The court, which has retained jurisdiction over the McCleary case, had issued a similar order in December 2012.

In its contempt finding, the court brushed aside arguments from the state that legislators were already focused on the problem and that a contempt ruling could harm their efforts to change the school finance system.

“These orders are not advisory or designed only to get the legislature’s ‘attention'; the court expects them to be obeyed even though they are directed to a coordinate branch of government,” the justices wrote. “When the orders are not followed, contempt is the lawful and proper means of enforcement in the orderly administration of justice.”

Since the McCleary ruling, lawmakers have increased education funding by roughly $1 billion, with the vast majority of that enacted in the state’s 2013-2015 biennial budget. (Plaintiffs in McCleary, including districts and parents on behalf of public school students, contend that the funding increase is actually closer to $700 million because of cuts the state made to cost-of-living pay raises for employees.)

But the court has said that those budgetary changes represent less than a 10 percent increase from the funding levels it found unconstitutional in its original ruling. Estimates based on school funding legislation passed in 2009 and 2010 are that the state will have to add $3.5 billion annually to provide a constitutionally adequate level of funding. The state is spending $15 billion on K-12 in its 2013-15 biennial budget.

During a Sept. 3 hearing on a possible contempt ruling, the plaintiffs had urged the court to require the state to identify a school funding plan before the start of the 2015 legislative session. The court declined to go that far, and instead, hewed to the course advised in court briefs filed by five former Washington state governors and state schools Superintendent Randy Dorn by agreeing to give lawmakers the 2015 session. Control of the legislature is split, with Democrats controlling the House and Republicans controlling the Senate through a coalition with two Democrats.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Thomas Ahearne, said he was pleased by the ruling, including the fact that the court did not identify the penalties it would impose should lawmakers stumble. That will keep legislators guessing and prevent them from focusing attention and criticisms on those punishments, he said.

“This order does paint the legislature into a corner,” Mr. Ahearne said.

Decisive Court Action

In a statement issued the same day as the court’s contempt ruling, Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, said the court’s action was unprecedented, but that no one should be shocked. He said lawmakers now have a “constitutional and moral obligation” to act.

“My budget team has been hard at work crafting a plan to submit to the 2015 legislature,” the governor said.

Lawmakers and Gov. Inslee showed no appetite for a special session this year to further address school funding. Although lawmakers have said that a contempt order would not help them create a solution, an attorney representing legislators told the court during the Sept. 3 hearing that they plan to act in 2015.

Mr. Myers said the order stops short of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s order for public schools to be closed for several days during the summer of 1976 in another school funding case, but is still a decisive move.

Complicating Washington state’s quest for a viable K-12 funding solution, he said, is the fact that in addition to not taxing personal income or income from capital gains, the state caps local property-tax increases at 1 percent annually, with certain exceptions.

In a report filed with the court in April on their attempts to change K-12 funding since the McCleary ruling, Washington lawmakers specified that their increases in state aid since 2012 have been directed at reducing class size in kindergarten and 1st grade, increasing access to all-day kindergarten, and adding instructional hours, among other changes.

A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 2014 edition of Education Week as Contempt Ruling Slams Wash. Lawmakers on Funding

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