Tardy Lawmakers Must Face ‘Hammer’ on Funding, Says Washington Chief

By Andrew Ujifusa — August 05, 2014 4 min read
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If Washington state lawmakers continue to refuse to “fully fund” basic education, the state supreme court should consider drastic measures, including a move to block all non-essential spending in the state until K-12 aid reaches legally satisfactory levels, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn says.

Dorn’s argument, outlined in an amicus brief filed with the court Aug. 4, is one of the latest moves in an ongoing school-funding battle that has grown out of the 2012 McCleary v. Washington ruling. In that decision, the state’s highest court ruled that lawmakers were failing in their constitutional duty to provide “ample” support for K-12 schools. The court gave the state legislature until 2018 to dramatically increase the resources available to public schools.

In June, the court announced that the funding increases approved by legislators since the McCleary ruling were inadequate and behind schedule. The justices ordered legislators to demonstrate why they should not be held in contempt of court. There’s a Sept. 3 hearing scheduled for lawmakers to present any such arguments.

Aug. 4 was a busy day for briefs related to the McCleary case. In addition to Dorn’s, five past governors of the Evergreen State jointly filed their own brief essentially urging the court to back off until the end of the 2015 legislative session, when lawmakers will pass a two-year state budget, the Seattle Times reported.

The Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, Columbia Legal Services, and the Children’s Alliance also filed a brief, stating that other welfare programs shouldn’t be slashed to help boost K-12 funding. And finally, a left-leaning think tank, the Washington State Budget and Policy Center, argued that legislators ultimately will need to increase tax revenue to satisfy McCleary.

Here are summaries of each of those filings:

• The amicus brief from Dorn, which wasn’t yet available on the state supreme court website early on Aug. 5, said that lawmakers haven’t adhered to legislation approved in 2009 and 2010 outlining a clear plan to increase state aid to schools. (UPDATE: click here for Dorn’s brief.) Echoing the message from the justices in June, Dorn said the state’s biennial budget approved in 2013 “didn’t make much progress” in satisfying McCleary.

If lawmakers don’t make significantly more progress in their 2015-17 budget, Dorn argues, the court should consider declaring all or parts of that budget unconstitutional. “I’m asking the Court to hand the plaintiffs a hammer if enough isn’t accomplished in 2015. That hammer could stop spending that doesn’t apply to basic education,” Dorn said in his statement.

• In their brief, the ex-governors—Daniel Evans, Christine Gregoire, Gary Locke, Mike Lowry, and John Spellman—say they are concerned with “short-term wrangling over long-term goals.” The court’s threat to hold lawmakers in contempt doesn’t help them accomplish the goal of improving K-12 funding. The ex-governors’ filing also says the court should put off any further action until the end of the 2015 session.

• The brief from the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, Columbia Legal Services, and the Children’s Alliance argues that it would be a mistake to restrict spending on non-education programs in the state budget, particularly as part of any further court action concerning McCleary.

Low-income students face challenges related to a lack of affordable housing, health-care inadequacies, and paltry family assets, the groups assert. The brief highlights homeless students, those in foster care, and students of color as three groups who need special consideration as far as welfare programs are concerned.

In the end, the groups argue, “cuts to programs that support families with school-aged children could destroy—not ensure—their constitutionally-mandated opportunity to receive a full education.”

• Lastly, the brief from the Washington State Budget and Policy Center argues that the state’s current tax policy, and the inadequate revenue it supplies to state coffers, makes a dramatically larger K-12 budget virtually impossible.

“The need for new revenue by tax reform and/or closing tax loopholes is the elephant in the room that the State wishes to ignore,” the center states in its brief. Lawmakers must consider raising tax rates, “broadening” the tax base, and eliminating special tax preferences, the center goes on to say.

But keep in mind that Washington state doesn’t have an income tax, and is possibly the most politically liberal state without such a tax, courtesy of the Tax Foundation:

In addition, Washington state doesn’t tax capital gains or dividends.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.