School Funding Case Settled in Washington State, But Governor Says 'This Is Not the End'

In a short, unanimous ruling, the Washington Supreme Court Thursday brought an end to the yearslong school-funding saga known as the McCleary decision.

By Joseph O'Sullivan

In a short, unanimous ruling, the Washington Supreme Court Thursday brought an end to the yearslong school-funding saga known as the McCleary decision.

The justices declared the state had fully implemented its new school funding plan, lifted the contempt order and the $100,000-per-day sanctions, and ended their oversight of the case.

The court's 2012 ruling found the state had violated its constitution by underfunding K-12 schools and kicked off years of fierce debate in Olympia over school funding and policies.

It forced lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee to pour billions of dollars into the K-12 school system over the years and even sparked the court's first contempt order against the state in Washington's history.

In an interview Thursday, Stephanie McCleary, one of the plaintiffs whose family is the namesake of the lawsuit, said she was happy to see a resolution to a case that began back in 2007.

"It feels weird to say it's done, after all this time," said McCleary, whose children were in grade school when the lawsuit began and are now college students. But, she asked, "What does 'done' mean?"

McCleary and Thomas Ahearne, attorney for the plaintiffs, say the court didn't rule on whether the state's plan actually fulfills the constitutional definition of "ample" funding for programs such as special education or student transportation.

"The question that has not been resolved one way or the other is, are those new formulas ample funding?" said Ahearne. Other lawsuits could be brought against the state in the future in search of such answers, he added.

Even as Inslee and lawmakers in both parties celebrated Thursday's order, they acknowledged that the state must do more to improve Washington's schools, particularly regarding special education.

"We know that our children need more than just a basic education," Inslee said in a statement. "This is not the end of our efforts to ensure schools are able to provide students everything they need to succeed and thrive."

Rather than having to focus solely on satisfying the justices, lawmakers now can "get more creative in a positive way" while working on education issues, said House Minority Leader Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm.

For now, the court order appears to end years of struggle at the Capitol over school funding.

As legislators and the governor dragged their heels in fully complying with the original decision, the court in 2014 handed down a contempt order. It was the first such order in  Washington's history.

The next year, justices raised the stakes by issuing a $100,000-per day-fine against the state.

The McCleary ruling and another on charter schools even sparked efforts -- ultimately unsuccessful -- to unseat three of the justices in the 2016 elections.

In 2017, legislators and the governor finally tackled a plan to fund teacher and other school-worker salaries, the biggest and most difficult part of the McCleary ruling.

A big chunk of that pay had been funded by local school district property-tax levies. The justices said the state needed to cover the full cost.

To address that, lawmakers and Inslee in 2017 approved a complex property-tax plan that boosted the statewide tax rate in 2018 and phases in limits on future tax revenues collected by school districts through local levies.

In later years, property owners in some districts will see an overall decrease in property taxes, though many districts in the Puget Sound area will continue to pay higher taxes.

Last November, the justices ruled that plan didn't fully provide for schools by the September 2018 deadline established  by the court, and suggested lawmakers further boost education funding. In response, lawmakers and the governor this spring provided an additional $776 million, and set aside another $105 million for the contempt fines.

With so much attention going to the McCleary ruling in recent years, lawmakers now face other problems, such as finally resolving multiple court orders stemming from Washington's troubled mental-health system.

One senator has already described that challenge as "McCleary 2."

(c)2018 The Seattle Times

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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