Law & Courts

Wash. State Lawmakers Face Hard Choices on K-12 Finance

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — August 25, 2015 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Despite a $100,000 daily fine, it remained unclear as of late last week just how ready Washington state legislators are to develop a plan for education funding that will fulfill the dictates of the state’s constitution to the satisfaction of the state Supreme Court.

Earlier this month, that court ruled that the state must pay the monetary penalty each day that it does not come up with a plan that, among other goals, would reduce the state’s reliance on local taxes to pay for education, especially staff salaries, by 2018.

Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, has said he would convene a special session of the state’s legislature to vote on a plan before January, when the legislature’s 2016 session begins—but only if there was a consensus from its education leaders to develop a plan to present in that session.

“The state and our kids deserve an answer, they deserve a step forward, they deserve a plan that will solve this problem,” he told reporters last week.

Late last week, legislators from both parties planned to meet, but tension remained between legislators about the path forward.

“We have legislators who are talking about impeaching the supreme court rather than coming up with a plan,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes, a Democrat on the education committee. “The governor wants to know whether a majority of each caucus is on board with compliance rather than constitutional conflict.”

The funding dilemma will not impact the start of the school year in the state, which begins this month in many districts. And even if the legislature does not comply with the court order until its next session starts, it would owe just $15 million in sanctions, a small fraction of the state’s two-year $38 billion operating budget.

But education leaders say the unresolved issue has led to public frustration and leaves the state with a system that state schools Superintendent Randy Dorn describes as inequitable, with wealthier districts able to attract better teachers by paying higher salaries.

“It’s a civil rights issue,” Dorn said.

Ongoing Deadlock

It has been three years since the state’s Supreme Court ruled, in a case known as McCleary v. State of Washington, that the state was failing to meet what its constitution calls its “paramount” duty: to amply fund K-12 education. And it’s been a year since the court held the state in contempt for failing to develop a plan to pay for changes and failing to put in place plans lawmakers had already adopted.

State legislators made some progress in an extended legislative session earlier this year, adding $1.3 billion in education spending that went in part to pay for transportation and some reductions in class sizes.

But they came to an impasse over finding the money to reduce class sizes further and to assure that a smaller percentage of staff salaries come out of local budgets—changes Inslee says could cost an additional $3 billion every two years.

Democrats, Republicans, and the state education department each floated plans earlier this year to comply with the court’s order to craft a new funding plan, but all proved politically contentious. One Democratic plan would have added a capital gains tax for Washington residents. A Republican senator’s proposal would have increased the state’s common schools levy while lowering property taxes. State lawmakers also considered setting teacher salaries themselves, a plan that has drawn the criticism of the Washington Education Association.

Dorn proposed a plan that calls for changes to the local levy system and would give the state until 2021 to meet the court’s requirements. He said finding enough teachers and facilities to support smaller class sizes would take that long. Dorn said he was hopeful that legislators would at least start studying and working on a plan before the session starts again in January. “If they come in January, they’ll never get it done,” he said.

Will the Sanction Work?

In its August ruling, the state Supreme Court wrote that a “monetary sanction is appropriate to emphasize the cost to the children, indeed to all of the people of this state, for every day the State fails to adopt a full plan” by the end of the 2015 session. But, it said, the sanction is “less intrusive” than other possibilities, including determining a plan for school funding on behalf of the legislature.

The funds will be sent to an account reserved, broadly, for education. Such an account does not yet exist and would have to be created by the legislature. David Postman, a spokesman for Gov. Inslee, said that the state’s Office of Financial Management will be tracking the fines in the meantime.

The court’s action has triggered mixed reaction. State Sen. Matt Manweller, a Republican, said on Twitter that the court was “going rogue” and called for impeaching its justices. A conservative blogger described the battle between the judiciary and legislative branches as a “constitutional crisis.”

Meanwhile, Frank Ordway, the director of government relations for the League of Education Voters, an advocacy group in Washington state focused on education issues including school funding, said that the sanctions seemed more symbolic than anything else, given the size of the potential penalty in relation to the state’s overall budget.

Still, Alan Burke, the executive director of the Washington State School Directors’ Association, which represents local school boards, said association members are “cautiously optimistic” that the sanctions might push legislators to develop a plan sooner rather than later.

“Districts have been waiting a long time for an infusion of revenue from the McCleary case,” Burke said. “The court is making a statement to the legislature that this needs to get going.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the August 26, 2015 edition of Education Week as Hard Choices Dog Washington State Lawmakers Over K-12 Aid

Events

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.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure Webinar
A New Era In Connected Learning: Security, Accessibility and Affordability for a Future-Ready Classroom
Learn about Windows 11 SE and Surface Laptop SE. Enable students to unlock learning and develop new skills.
Content provided by Microsoft Surface
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum Making Technology Work Better in Schools
Join experts for a look at the steps schools are taking (or should take) to improve the use of technology in schools.
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.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
The ABCs of ESSER: How to Make the Most of Relief Funds Before They Expire
Join a diverse group of K-12 experts to learn how to leverage federal funds before they expire and improve student learning environments.
Content provided by Johnson Controls

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 Liable Are School Districts for Student-on-Student Sexual Harassment?
The outcome of two federal lawsuits brought against the Nashville school district may answer that.
4 min read
Image of a gavel
iStock/Getty
Law & Courts Conservatives’ Checklist: U.S. Supreme Court Education Decisions to Overrule
Here are five education issues that could be targets for reconsideration if Roe v. Wade falls.
3 min read
The Supreme Court in Washington, Dec. 3, 2021. The Supreme Court has turned away a plea from parents to block a new admissions policy at a prestigious high school in northern Virginia that a lower court had found discriminates against Asian American students.
The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on Dec. 3, 2021.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Law & Courts Leaked Abortion Draft Has Supreme Court Education Cases in Political Cross-Hairs
Conservatives have taken aim at decisions on educating immigrants, race in admissions, and religion. Liberals have some cases in mind, too.
8 min read
supreme court SOC
Getty
Law & Courts 'Brown v. Board' Cited in Draft Supreme Court Opinion to Back Overturning Abortion Rights
The leaked opinion in a case still to be decided by the Supreme Court cites landmark decisions including Brown v. Board of Education.
7 min read
A crowd of people gather outside the Supreme Court, Monday night, May 2, 2022 in Washington. A draft opinion circulated among Supreme Court justices suggests that earlier this year a majority of them had thrown support behind overturning the 1973 case Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion nationwide, according to a report published Monday night in Politico. It's unclear if the draft represents the court's final word on the matter. The Associated Press could not immediately confirm the authenticity of the draft Politico posted, which if verified marks a shocking revelation of the high court's secretive deliberation process, particularly before a case is formally decided.
A crowd gathers outside the U.S. Supreme Court Monday night after the leak of a draft opinion suggesting the court intends to overturn the 1973 <i>Roe v. Wade</i> precedent that legalized abortion nationwide.
Alex Brandon/AP