When asked how much money is enough, industrialist John Rockefeller replied: “Just a little bit more.” That seemed to be the Washington State Supreme Court’s attitude in its November 15 ruling in which the judges argue the state will not be in compliance with its mandate to fully fund basic education by next year, despite historic new increases in education spending.
The ruling came after a series of October hearings in which the state argued that the 2017-19 operating budget’s property tax swap as part of a $7.3 billion four-year spending plan met the court’s mandate.
By the 2019-20 school year, the Washington state legislature will have almost doubled the amount of per-pupil basic education spending ─ 6,639 to $11,996 ─ since the State Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision. Overall spending on education will also have doubled from $13.6 billion in 2011-13 to $26.6 billion in 2019-20.
However, the State Supreme Court says that’s still a day late and a bit more than a dollar short; $1 billion, to be precise.
Although the judges acknowledged the plan “enacted a funding system that, when fully implemented, will achieve constitutional compliance according to the benchmarks that have consistently guided judicial oversight,” it also noted that the state won’t implement a new teacher salary model until after a court-imposed September 2018 deadline.
“While the court can appreciate the political and budgetary challenges that may explain the State’s decision to postpone full funding of the salary model, it cannot accept part compliance as full compliance,” the ruling states. “The court will retain jurisdiction, continue to impose daily sanctions, and reserve all enforcement options to compel compliance with its decision and orders.”
The reaction to the ruling among both key ranking members of both parties seemed restrained.
Sen. John Braun (R-20) is the chair of the Senate Ways & Means Committee and part of the budget negotiations. In a statement, he wrote that “The court has clearly played a critical role in getting the attention of lawmakers and the public with its original ruling and continued oversight. However, implementing historic funding increases that actually work across 295 school districts and reforming property-tax collections throughout 39 different counties forced us to develop this specific timeline.”
Another budget negotiator during this year’s session was Sen. Christine Rofles (D-23), who will take over as Ways & Means chair next January. In a statement, she wrote that “many lawmakers, myself included, have had conversations with our school districts since the 2017 session concluded. We know some steps need to be taken to ensure they have the flexibility and funding they need to provide students with the best education possible and in the fairest way for taxpayers. This order reiterates the need for these conversations to continue and intensify.”
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan (D-47) defended the education plan, writing that “the 2018 deadline was our original target, but as the complex funding reforms began to take shape, it was clear that target needed to be adjusted. It would be difficult for many school districts to create the infrastructure needed to implement these reforms by the 2018-19 school year.”
“Lawmakers set out to ensure schools are fully funded, but just as important is to ensure we fund them correctly and not create unnecessary burdens for local school districts,” he wrote further.
Governor Jay Inslee’s response to the ruling was also measured. “I’m encouraged the court recognized the incredible progress we’ve made toward fully funding basic education. As the court noted, the plan the Legislature adopted, but for the timing, will meet constitutional requirements. I want to remind everyone that solving the McCleary decision is only one stop on our journey to give our students the education system they deserve.”
The five-year legal wrangling between legislators and the court stems from the preamble to the state Constitution in Article 4, which states “it is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference with regard to or on account of race, color, caste or sex.” Since 2014, the court has imposed $100,000 daily fines on the legislature, though this move has been criticized as a meaningless gesture since the court has no control over the state treasury.
However, the court’s continued sanctions against the state could serve as a banner for Democrats eager to use their control of both chambers to usher in new taxes that had previously been stymied by the Senate Majority Coalition. In a tweet, Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46) wrote that “new revenue will be essential to meet WA Supreme Court order for $1B for schools by September.”
Nevertheless, Washington Policy Center Education Center Director Liv Finne says the consensus among top-ranking lawmakers that their plan is set to fully fund basic education indicates that “McCleary is going away. All of them are saying they’ve done their job. Here comes this silly court saying, ‘You haven’t done this fast enough and you need to do it faster.’ It underscores the incompetence of the court in selecting that particular date.”
“The (WA) Supreme Court has been shifting the goal posts since the original decision,” she added. “It is completely out of its lane in saying they will declare what the goal will be.”