Law & Courts

Washington State Lawmakers Admit Pain in Meeting Mandated Spending Hikes

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 30, 2014 3 min read
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If you’re a connoisseur of education-funding battles, one of the prime offerings is in Washington state, where leaders have been struggling to meet the demands of a January 2012 state supreme court ruling in the McCleary v. State of Washington case. In that ruling, the justices found the state’s education-funding levels not in line with the state constitution, and ordered a signficant boost to K-12 spending by 2018.

Over two years later, what have lawmakers come up with? The answer illustrates that states’ school-funding lawsuits often don’t “end” just because a state’s top court has issued a ruling.

In an April 29 funding report to the state’s highest court, state legislators say that they’ve moved closer to meeting the requirements of McCleary this year, but acknowledge that they’ve still got work to do and ask the court to recognize the progress they’ve made recently. (Hat-tip to Kyle Stokes at KPLU).

Back in December 2012, when lawmakers began envisioning how to meet the new spending mandates imposed by the ruling, legislators came up with one plan for how they would increase spending through 2018. The chart isn’t the equivalent of a legal requirement for officials, but it gves you a sense of the challenge facing Evergreen State leaders:

Legislators have largely been basing their plans on K-12 spending legislation enacted before the McCleary ruling that the state hasn’t been able to fulfill, due to the economic crisis from roughly six years ago.

So what’s happened so far?

Lawmakers passed the two-year budget in 2013, and approved a supplemental budget this year. In fact, for the 2013-15 budget, lawmakers approved $982 million in new spending last year. You can compare the 2012 proposal in the chart above to how the spending actually breaks down in the 2013-15 budget, which covers fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2015 in the chart below:

You can add to the chart immediately above an additional $58 million for classroom materials and other operating costs lawmakers approved this year.

If you’re keeping score, you’ll see that the total of a little more than $1 billion in new spending for 2013-15 falls short of the roughly $1.4 billion lawmakers had envisioned.

In their April 29 report, the legislators on a joint task force acknowledge that “the pace of implementation must increase” but that several pieces of legislation to accelerate this progress stalled this year. There’s no complete plan in the report for how the work will be completed, and the legislature estimates that perhaps $2.5 billion in additional new dollars wil be needed over the next two budget cycles. House Majority Leader, Pat Sullivan, a Democrat, told the Seatte Post-Intelligencer that further education budget increases will be a “struggle.”

“I would argue this is a clear report about a partial plan,” Rep. Ross Hunter, a Democrat who heads the House Appropriations Committee, told Stokes.

The report, not surprisingly, also asserts the legislature’s prerogative over how it meets the McCleary ruling. A while back, I reported on some bipartisan grumbling among state lawmakers as to the aggressive nature of the court’s oversight in the wake of McCleary, and it’s not clear if the court will be pleased with this latest update about the state’s effort to increase K-12 spending. Stokes notes that the court wants a “complete plan” from the legislature.

As you can see from the back-and-forth between the court and legislature since 2012, the justices clearly are keeping a close eye on budget decisions in Olympia. You can expect a response from the court to this latest update, but will the justices be pleased?

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