Supreme Court: There's more work to do on education funding

OLYMPIA, Wash. — The Washington Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that while lawmakers have made progress in a multiyear effort to fully fund basic education, they are not on track to meet a court-imposed deadline and will remain in contempt of court.

The high court ruled unanimously that it will retain jurisdiction in the case, and gave lawmakers another legislative session to get the work done, ordering them to present a report by April 9 detailing the state’s progress.

“The court’s constitutional responsibility is to the schoolchildren of this state,” the court wrote. “We cannot erode that constitutional right by saying that the State is now “close enough” to constitutional.”

Lawmakers needed a funded plan in place this year ahead of a Sept. 1, 2018 deadline. The Legislature went into overtime sessions this year far beyond their regularly scheduled 105-day session in order to approve a plan to increase spending on K-12 public schools that allocates billions in new spending over the next four years.

The biggest piece of the court order that the Legislature had to wrestle with was figuring out how much the state must provide for teacher salaries. School districts currently pay a big chunk of those salaries with local property-tax levies.

The plan that was ultimately signed into law relies largely on an increase to the statewide property tax that starts next year. The tax increases from $1.89 to $2.70 per $1,000 of assessed value, with the increase earmarked for education. The plan — which keeps in place local property tax levies but caps them beginning in 2019 at a lower level— will ultimately raise property taxes for some districts and lower them in others. Under the plan, the minimum starting salary for teachers will increase, with adjustment for inflation and regional differences.

The court took issue with the fact that under the plan, the salary component isn’t fully funded until September 2019. It said that while the salary allocation model complies with their order, the funding timeframe does not.

“The program of basic education cannot be said to be “fully implemented” by September 1, 2018, when it puts off full funding of basic education salaries until the 2019-20 school year,” the court wrote. “If compliance by 2019-20 is close enough, why not 2020-21 or the following year?”

The state has been in contempt of court since 2014 for lack of progress on satisfying a 2012 ruling that found that K-12 school funding was not adequate. Washington’s Constitution states that it the Legislature’s “paramount duty” to fully fund the education system.

Last month, attorneys for the state asked for that contempt order to be lifted, arguing that they had complied with the order ahead of the deadline. The court disagreed, and kept in place daily sanctions of $100,000 a day — that are supposed to be placed in a separate account to benefit basic education — that have been accruing since August 2015.

In its ruling, the court noted that lawmakers never actually established a separate account, though the state argued that that money — about $82 million as of Wednesday — has been ultimately used to pay for education.

The court wrote that “it expects its directives to be obeyed.”

“And since the court has ordered the payment of sanctions into a dedicated account, the State may not expend the funds in that account without the court’s authorization, even if up to this point the State has kept only an accounting of the accumulating sanctions rather than actually establishing an account,” the ruling read.

The court — acknowledging the Legislature’s propensity for overtime sessions — emphasized that lawmakers must achieve compliance during the “regular” 60-day session that begins in January.

“If such measures are not enacted by the end of the regular session, the court will immediately address the need to impose additional remedial measures,” the court wrote.