The State Supreme Court told legislators in no uncertain terms Thursday that they still aren’t moving fast enough when it comes to adequately funding public schools.
In an order signed by eight of the nine justices, the court gave lawmakers credit for taking “meaningful steps” in the 2013-15 budget, when they increased education spending by about $1 billion, or at least $750 million if budget cuts are counted.
But the justices also said lawmakers can’t claim significant progress because they aren’t on track to reach the spending level the court has ordered them to meet by 2018.
The court urged lawmakers to increase education spending again this year, even though it is a short session when the Legislature usually makes only small budget adjustments.
Failing to act, the justices wrote “would send a strong message about the state’s good-faith commitment toward fulfilling its constitution promise.”
The justices also set an April 30 deadline for the Legislature to come up with a complete, year-by-year plan to meet the court’s requirements.
The court’s order stems from its 2012 ruling known as the McCleary case. The court agreed with the plaintiffs — a large group of parents, teachers and school districts — that the Legislature was violating the state’s constitution by failing to provide ample funding for public education.
The court gave lawmakers a 2018 deadline to raise educational spending by an additional $3.5 billion to $7 billion per biennium, depending on whether the total includes more state money for teacher pay. It based the order on the Legislature’s own definition of what it means to provide a basic education for the state’s 1 million schoolkids.
In many ways, the court’s order wasn’t a surprise. It issued a similar one just before last year’s legislative session, making it clear that it continues to watch the Legislature closely.
“It’s obvious to everybody — and even the Legislature itself — that it hasn’t made enough progress,” said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn.
On Thursday, Dorn announced his own proposal to raise revenue for education if the Legislature fails to do so by January 2018.
But, like last year, it isn’t clear whether the Legislature will do as much as the court seems to want.
“We respect the court and their opinion, and we’re going to do everything we can,” said state Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, chair of the Senate’s Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee.
But Litzow also said he hasn’t heard any talk about increasing education spending until the next biennium begins.
“We are elected officials, and we’ll continue to move forward in a way that we can get 147 people to move forward in,” he said.
For his part, Gov. Jay Inslee issued a statement saying he shared the court’s concern “about the pace we are moving, and all the work that remains undone.”
But he, too, isn’t proposing any new education spending this year.
Tom Ahearne, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said the Legislature is risking sanctions if it doesn’t do anything.
Ahearne said he would have liked the justices to hold the Legislature in contempt. But he said he understood why the court is taking what he sees as a measured approach, giving the Legislature at least three strikes before it considers sanctions.
In his view, legislators are down two strikes, with just one more to go.
He also pointed out that, in the order, the court wrote that its 2012 decision “remains fully subject to judicial enforcement.”
“We have no wish to be forced into entering specific funding directives to the State,” the justices wrote. ” … But, it is incumbent upon the State to demonstrate, through immediate, concrete action, that is making real and measurable progress, not simply promises.”