Court: Lawmakers must expedite education funding

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - The Washington Supreme Court on Thursday ordered lawmakers to submit a complete plan by the end of April to detail how the state will fully pay for basic education.

The 8-1 ruling said that while the state made progress in last year's budget to increase funding for K-12 education, it was "not on target" to hit the constitutionally required funding level by the 2017-18 school year.

"We have no wish to be forced into entering specific funding directives to the State, or, as some state high courts have done, holding the legislature in contempt of court," read the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen. "But, it is incumbent upon the State to demonstrate, through immediate, concrete action, that it is making real and measureable progress, not simply promises."

Joining Madsen were Justices Charles Johnson, Debra Stephens, Susan Owens, Charles Wiggins, Mary Fairhurst, Steven Gonzalez and Sheryl Gordon McCloud. Justice Jim Johnson wrote a separate dissent, which was to be released at a later date.

In 2012, the high court ruled that the state is not meeting its constitutional obligation concerning education funding. That ruling was the result of a lawsuit brought by a coalition of school districts, parents and education groups, known as the McCleary case for the family named in the suit. The court has required yearly progress reports from the Legislature on its efforts. Those reports are then critiqued by the group that brought the lawsuit, and by the Supreme Court.

This year, the Legislature allocated about $1 billion more for basic education for the current two-year budget cycle that ends mid-2015. Lawmakers estimate they need to find a total of between $3.5 billion and $4.5 billion more over the coming years to fully pay for basic education.

The majority noted that the budget allocation through 2015 "is only a modest 6.7 percent above current funding levels that violate the constitution, and there are not even two full budget cycles left to make up the sizable gap before the school year ending in 2018."

The court wrote it is "clear that the pace of progress must quicken."

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee said that he share's the court's concern "about the pace we are moving and about all of the work that remains undone."

Inslee said that the state will need an estimated $5 billion over the next four years to satisfy the requirements. Inslee said that closing tax exemptions needs to be part of the discussion.

"In the end, this isn't just about complying with court orders," Inslee said in a written statement. "It's about our children. We owe it to them to fully fund the education reforms we promised."

The ruling comes just days before Monday's start of the 60-day legislative session.

Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, a member of the legislative committee that has been submitting the reports to the court, said that the ruling made clear that the upcoming session is going "to be about coming up with a clear plan to implement McCleary's basic education funding requirements."

"The court is giving us one more shot to come up with a plan," he said. "It's going to have to be a historic solution and a historic compromise, probably. If we don't, we're really risking a constitutional crisis."

Senate Education Committee Chairman Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, said that there wasn't anything surprising in the court's opinion other than the April 30 deadline for the Legislature to submit a plan.

"It's a week before session and trying to get 147 legislators to agree on what we're going to do in the 60 days is a challenge, much less what we're going to do in the next four years," he said, but stressed that lawmakers want to move forward with addressing the funding requirements.

"We'll give it serious consideration, and I'm sure we'll figure out a way to appropriately address their concerns," he said.

At the same time the court ruling came down, state Superintendent Randy Dorn proposed that the state increase the sales tax by 1 percent and also increase the state property tax to address education funding. He said the state won't be able to get enough revenue to add money to the education system with the current state of the economy.

Dorn said he was proposing his ideas to get lawmakers talking about what to do in the coming months.

"There is no plan. There is no roadmap," Dorn said. "I hope this gives them a direction."