Has The State Met Its School Funding Duty? That’s Up To The Wash. Supreme Court

Oct 23, 2017

Tuesday is a big day in Olympia for people concerned about school funding issues in Washington. That’s when the state Supreme Court will hold a hearing on whether the legislature has met the court’s requirements to amply fund basic education in the long-running McCleary case.

The hearing will last one hour, divided up between the attorney general’s office and the lawyer for the plaintiffs.

“The main argument I’m going to make is the Supreme Court issued an order and the state has not complied,” said Thomas Ahearne, the attorney representing the McCleary and Venema families who, along with a coalition called the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools, initiated the lawsuit a decade ago.

Ahearne said the funding plan the legislature passed this summer doesn’t bring the state into full compliance by the Sept. 1, 2018 deadline and fails to sufficiently increase teacher salaries. He said if the state Supreme Court agrees that lawmakers haven’t done enough, it may go further than the daily $100,000 fine it’s imposed on the legislature. The legislature has not set that money aside in a dedicated account, but the state Office of Financial Management keeps a running tally and the legislature now owes more than $80 million.

“If the court says we’re going to do what courts in other states have done, which is just declare the school statutes unconstitutional  because they’re unconstitutionally funded unless you comply with our order, that’s a bigger stick,” Ahearne said.

That could mean school wouldn’t open next September if the legislature fails to pass a more substantial funding package, he said.

Brionna Aho, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Bob Ferguson, said attorneys in his office declined to be interviewed before the hearing. His office has argued in legal filings that the state has fulfilled the court’s order and that the legislature this year approved unprecedented increases in school funding by the state.

Ahearne said the state Supreme Court may try to issue a decision relatively quickly.

“My guess is they’ll issue something in calendar year 2017 because the 2018 legislature is going to have to know, `Are we off the hook, or is there something we need to do?’” he said. “`And if there is something we need to do, how much do we need to do?’”