Attorney slams state lawmakers on school funding

SEATTLE (AP) - The attorney representing a coalition of parents and education groups that sued the state over school funding told the Washington Supreme Court on Wednesday that the Legislature is still avoiding its constitutional duty to school children.

In a filing to the court, attorney Thomas Ahearne wrote that he was disappointed with a legislative report to the court last month.

Ahearne said lawmakers seem to think that they can postpone fulfilling the court's order to put more money into education because of the economy, but his clients believe state officials need to obey the constitution even when times are difficult.

In January, the Supreme Court ruled the state isn't meeting its constitutional obligation to amply pay for basic education. In the past decade, education spending has gone from close to 50 percent to just above 40 percent of the state budget, despite the fact that some education spending is protected by the constitution.

State lawmakers have in recent years been dealing with large budget deficits, and earlier this year they cut $300 million in state funding.

A month ago, Washington lawmakers filed their first annual progress report in answer to the Supreme Court's ruling on the lawsuit known as the McCleary case. The brief filed Wednesday is the coalition's response.

Ahearne called on the court to make this a "teachable moment" for the schoolchildren of Washington.

"This court's response will teach our upcoming generation of Washington citizens a fundamental lesson about whether our constitution really matters," he wrote.

The 57-page report suggested a few possible ways to teach the Legislature a lesson, including fines, more specific instructions for writing the next state budget, or an order to do all the overhaul work in one biennium instead of giving the Legislature until 2018 to finish.

State Rep. Gary Alexander, co-chairman of the legislative committee charged with making these reports to the court, disagreed strongly with Ahearne's assessment of the Legislature's action on school funding.

Alexander, R-Olympia, said he felt the Legislature was making good progress in creating a plan for finding more dollars for education and he was optimistic the 2013 Legislature would focus on education funding.

"When I come back in January, I will consider that obligation our No. 1 priority," Alexander said.

His co-chair, Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, said lawmakers understand they don't have a choice about obeying the Supreme Court's orders and added that they have been working hard to do so.

Finding the money to pay for all-day kindergarten for every child might be the Legislature's first priority, both Frockt and Alexander speculated.

"Not only is it required under the reform plan, but it has the most potential to address achievement gap issues," Frockt said.

He added, however, that the plan won't be finished until the end of December and then the proposal will need legislative approval, money in the state budget and a signature from the new governor.

Ahearne's court filing said the Legislature not only failed to make progress on the Supreme Court's two goals - to demonstrate steady progress toward implementing the reforms promised previously and to show real and measurable progress toward paying for those reforms by 2018 - but it chose not to make progress.

The next legislative report is due 60 days after the governor signs the state budget.

Alexander said lawmakers will have a preliminary plan for how to start paying more for education in December. The main question, at this point, is whether the Legislature should put a down payment on every reform or pick one or two to focus on first, he said.