Legislature heads to court on education finance

SEATTLE (AP) - The Washington Supreme Court is marking the beginning of school with a mandatory assembly for the Legislature on education finance.

The court has ordered lawmakers to come to court on Wednesday to explain why they haven't followed its orders to fix the way Washington pays for public education.

Lawmakers, the governor and others say the court needs to be patient and give the Legislature more time to fulfil the orders in the 2012 McCleary decision.

Thomas Ahearne, the attorney for the coalition that sued the state over education funding, says the Legislature has made so little progress toward meeting the goal that only more pressure from the court will make it happen.

The McCleary decision said lawmakers are not meeting their constitutional responsibility to fully pay for basic education and they are relying too much on local tax-levy dollars to balance the education budget.

The court commended the Legislature for passing some reforms in the K-12 system and for starting to pay for them. The McCleary decision orders the Legislature to finish paying for the reforms, which may add more than $4 billion to the state's biennial budget, according to some government estimates.

The Legislature was given until the 2017-18 school year to fix the problem.

Among the reforms awaiting payment: all-day kindergarten in every school; more instructional hours for high school students to help them earn 24 credits to graduate; pupil transportation fully supported by state dollars; a new formula for school staffing levels, smaller classes in the lower grades; and more state support for school equipment and supplies.

The Legislature has been making yearly progress reports - three since 2012 - on its efforts to fulfill the McCleary decision, and each time, the court's response has been that lawmakers aren't doing enough.

And every year Ahearne has called on the court to punish the Legislature for dragging its feet.

In June, the Supreme Court ordered the state of Washington to show why the justices should not take the actions Ahearne has called for, including a freeze on state spending until the McCleary ruling is fulfilled, the sale of state property to pay for education and reversing education cuts in the state budget.

A flood of briefs have been filed in the case. The opinions range from suggestions to hold the Legislature in contempt to giving lawmakers more time, to not putting education spending ahead of other needs such as health care for kids.

The superintendent of public instruction has chimed in. A group of former governors filed their own brief and several advocacy groups have expressed their concerns.

The Legislature, represented by the state attorney general's office, argues that they're making progress, and they have a plan to make even more progress during the next budget session, which begins in January.