Declaring that state lawmakers have failed to fix the state’s unconstitutional system for funding public schools, the Washington State Supreme Court imposed a daily $100,000 penalty on the legislature until it makes firmer commitments to increasing teacher salaries and reducing class sizes.
The court’s Aug. 13 order is effective immediately, although the court said that if Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, calls a special session and lawmakers pass legislation that commits the state more heavily to reducing class size in K-3 and expanding all-day kindergarten, that daily fine may ultimately be “abated.”
“Given the gravity of the State’s ongoing violation of its constitutional obligation to amply provide for education, and in light of the need for expeditious action, the time has come for the court to impose sanctions,” the justices wrote.
The court’s order is the culmination of a political struggle that began in 2012, when in McCleary v. Washington the state’s top court ruled that the Washington’s system for funding K-12 violated the constitution, which says that providing for public schools is the “paramount” duty of the state. The court gave the legislature until 2018 to increase funding and specifically reduce class sizes in certain grades and make more money available for classroom expenses and other operations, among other priorities.
Since then, lawmakers, which approve biennial budgets, have made several attempts to increase funding for K-12 and to target that funding to the programs highlighted in McCleary. And last year, the court even held the state in contempt over its inaction, but agreed to delay ordering any sanctions until the next legislation session.
This year, following both regular and special legislative sessions, lawmakers approved a $1.3 billion boost to education for the 2015-17 biennial budget, and lawmakers told the court in a subsequent report that the extra funding would go to the policies highlighted in the original McCleary case, such as reduced class size.
However, in its Aug. 13 ruling, the court zeroed in on what it called the state’s inadequate plan to “attract and retain the educators necessary to actually deliver a quality education.” The justices said that the 2015-17 budget contained cost-of-living increases that had previously been delayed, along a pay raise that was given to other state government workers. But they said such measures were inadequate to fulfilling McCleary.
The court also said that it’s not clear that the state has prepared enough capital funding to ensure that enough facilties will be ready to handle lower class sizes and expanded all-day kindergarten programs by 2018. Noting that lawmakers themselves have projected a teacher shortage for the 2017-18 school year of about 4,000, "[The legislature] says nothing in its report about how that shortfall will be made up and what it will cost.”
Read the Aug. 13 ruling from the court below:
A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.