Court rules Legislature not on track to fully fund education by deadline, to remain in contempt

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — The Washington Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that while lawmakers have made progress in a multiyear effort to fully fund basic education, they are not on track to meet next year's deadline and will remain in contempt of court.

The high court unanimously ruled that it will retain jurisdiction in the case, and gave lawmakers another legislative session to get the work done, ordering them to present a report by April 9 detailing the state's progress. The justices said that while a plan passed by the Legislature this past year was in compliance, the timeframe for full funding was not.

"The court's constitutional responsibility is to the schoolchildren of this state," the court wrote. "We cannot erode that constitutional right by saying that the State is now "close enough" to constitutional."

Lawmakers needed a funded plan in place this year ahead of a Sept. 1, 2018 deadline. The Legislature went into overtime sessions this year far beyond their regularly scheduled 105-day session in order to approve a plan to increase spending on K-12 public schools that allocates billions in new spending over the next four years.

The biggest piece of the court order that the Legislature had to wrestle with was figuring out how much the state must provide for teacher salaries. School districts currently pay a big chunk of those salaries with local property-tax levies.

The plan that was ultimately signed into law relies largely on an increase to the statewide property tax that starts next year. The tax increases from $1.89 to $2.70 per $1,000 of assessed value, with the increase earmarked for education. The plan — which keeps in place local property tax levies but caps them beginning in 2019 at a lower level— will ultimately raise property taxes for some districts and lower them in others. Under the plan, the minimum starting salary for teachers will increase, with adjustment for inflation and regional differences.

The court took issue with the fact that under the plan, the salary component isn't fully funded until September 2019. It notes that the state would need about another $1 billion to fully pay for the salary portion of the plan.

"The program of basic education cannot be said to be "fully implemented" by September 1, 2018, when it puts off full funding of basic education salaries until the 2019-20 school year," the court wrote. "If compliance by 2019-20 is close enough, why not 2020-21 or the following year?"

Republican Sen. John Braun, this year's key budget writer in the Senate, said the later full implementation date resulted from the complexity of the changes made by the Legislature

"The court has clearly played a critical role in getting the attention of lawmakers and the public with its original ruling and continued oversight," Braun said in a statement. "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."

Democratic House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan agreed, saying that the court "missed the mark" on that issue. He said that school districts need time to implement the new system "otherwise the new money just goes into the old system."

"The last thing I want to see is this thing jammed into place so quickly that it doesn't work or creates more problems than it fixes," he said. "It's not just about funding, it's about the infrastructure to make it work."

The state has been in contempt of court since 2014 for lack of progress on satisfying a 2012 ruling that found that K-12 school funding was not adequate. Washington's Constitution states that it is the Legislature's "paramount duty" to fully fund the education system.

Last month, attorneys for the state asked for that contempt order to be lifted, arguing that they had complied with the order ahead of the deadline. The court disagreed, and kept in place daily sanctions of $100,000 a day — that are supposed to be placed in a separate account to benefit basic education — that have been accruing since August 2015.

In its ruling, the court noted that lawmakers never actually established a separate account, though the state argued that that money — about $82 million as of Wednesday — has been ultimately used to pay for education.

The court wrote that "it expects its directives to be obeyed."

"And since the court has ordered the payment of sanctions into a dedicated account, the State may not expend the funds in that account without the court's authorization, even if up to this point the State has kept only an accounting of the accumulating sanctions rather than actually establishing an account," the ruling read.

The court — acknowledging the Legislature's propensity for overtime sessions — emphasized that lawmakers must achieve compliance during the "regular" 60-day session that begins in January.

"If such measures are not enacted by the end of the regular session, the court will immediately address the need to impose additional remedial measures," the court wrote.

In a statement, Gov. Jay Inslee said he shared the court's frustration that the Legislature was not on track to meet the 2018 deadline, but said he was encouraged that "the court recognized the incredible progress we've made toward fully funding basic education."