Law & Courts

Contempt Ruling Slams Wash. Lawmakers on K-12 Funding

By Andrew Ujifusa — September 12, 2014 4 min read

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


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
How Schools Can Implement Safe In-Person Learning
In order for in-person schooling to resume, it will be necessary to instill a sense of confidence that it is safe to return. BD is hosting a virtual panel discussing the benefits of asymptomatic screening
Content provided by BD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
How Districts Are Centering Relationships and Systemic SEL for Back to School 21-22
As educators and leaders consider how SEL fits into their reopening and back-to-school plans, it must go beyond an SEL curriculum. SEL is part of who we are as educators and students, as well as
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
The Fall K-3 Classroom: What the data imply about composition, challenges and opportunities
The data tracking learning loss among the nation’s schoolchildren confirms that things are bad and getting worse. The data also tells another story — one with serious implications for the hoped for learning recovery initiatives
Content provided by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts How a Cheerleader's Snapchat Profanity Could Shape the Limits of Students' Free Speech
Brandi Levy's social media post is the basis for a case before the U.S. Supreme Court on whether schools may punish off-campus speech.
9 min read
Image of Brandi Levy.
Brandi Levy, now an 18-year-old college freshman, was a cheerleader at Mahanoy Area High School in Pennsylvania when she made profane comments on Snapchat that are now at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court case on student speech rights.
Danna Singer/Provided by the American Civil Liberties Union
Law & Courts Student School Board Members Flex Their Civic Muscle in Supreme Court Free-Speech Case
Current and former student school board members add their growing voices to a potentially precedent-setting U.S. Supreme Court case.
7 min read
Image of the Supreme Court.
Law & Courts Justice Department Memo Could Stoke State-Federal Fights Over Transgender Students' Rights
Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, a Justice Department memo says.
3 min read
Stephanie Marty demonstrates against a proposed ban on transgender girls and women from female sports leagues outside the South Dakota governor's mansion in Pierre, S.D. on March 11, 2021.
Stephanie Marty demonstrates against a proposed ban on allowing transgender girls and women to play in female sports leagues outside the South Dakota governor's mansion in Pierre, S.D.
Stephen Groves/AP
Law & Courts Diverse Array of Groups Back Student in Supreme Court Case on Off-Campus Speech
John and Mary Beth Tinker, central to the landmark speech case that bears their name, argue that even offensive speech merits protection.
5 min read
In this photo taken Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013, Mary Beth Tinker, 61, shows an old photograph of her with her brother John Tinker to the Associated Press during an interview in Washington. Tinker was just 13 when she spoke out against the Vietnam War by wearing a black armband to her Iowa school in 1965. When the school suspended her, she took her free speech case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. Her message: Students should take action on issues important to them. "It's better for our whole society when kids have a voice," she says.
In this 2013 photo, Mary Beth Tinker shows a 1968 Associated Press photograph of her with her brother John Tinker displaying the armbands they had worn in school to protest the Vietnam War. (The peace symbols were added after the school protest). The Tinkers have filed a brief in the U.S. Supreme Court supporting a Pennsylvania student who was disciplined for an offensive message on Snapchat.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP