McCleary plaintiffs ask court to hold Legislature in contempt

Staff writerMay 21, 2014 

The plaintiffs in a landmark education-funding case told the state Supreme Court Wednesday that state lawmakers should be held in contempt for not making enough progress toward a 2018 deadline.

An attorney for the group that sued the state said Wednesday that lawmakers should return to Olympia this year for a special session to boost education spending.

“They do it when Boeing wants something, they do it when the Mariners want something, they do it when the Seahawks want something,” said Thomas Ahearne, who represents the coalition of families, school districts and education groups that brought the lawsuit. “They can do it to comply with a court order.”

In McCleary v. State, the state Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the Legislature was shirking its constitutional duty to amply fund K-12 education.

The court ordered the Legislature to fully fund the state’s school system – including measures lawmakers approved to expand all-day kindergarten and reduce class-size – by the 2017-2018 school year.

The court retained jurisdiction over the case, and most recently in January 2014 chided lawmakers for their lack of action.

Three weeks ago, legislators reported back to the court following a 60-day legislative session that adjourned in March.

The legislative committee tasked with responding to the lawsuit largely cited a list of education measures that lawmakers considered, but didn’t pass, as evidence that they were moving toward solutions. Though the Legislature put about $58 million more toward basic education this year, legislative staff estimate they still have to bridge a gap of at least $3.5 billion.

The latest progress report did little to satisfy the McCleary plaintiffs.

"The State did what it had been ordered to not do," the plaintiffs' response reads. "It offered promises about trying to submit a plan and take significant action next year – along with excuses for why the State’s ongoing violation of kids’ constitutional rights and court orders should be excused this year.”

According to the plaintiffs, the Legislature has taken no steps in 2014 to boost teacher pay, reduce class sizes, increase funding for student transportation or pay for all-day kindergarten – all areas the Supreme Court said the state was underfunding in its 2012 ruling.

The plaintiffs also knocked lawmakers for failing to fund gifted education programs, as well as not providing enough money for a plan to increase the number of credits students must earn in high school.

The plaintiffs asked the state Supreme Court to take “concrete action” if lawmakers don’t increase money for education and pass a long-term funding plan by the end of 2014.

The court suggested in January that it may consider sanctions if lawmakers don’t step up.

"We have no wish to be forced into entering specific funding directives to the state, or, as some high courts have done, holding the Legislature in contempt of court," the court said. "But, it is incumbent upon the state to demonstrate, through immediate, concrete action, that it is making real and measurable progress, not simply promises."

A committee of state lawmakers has eight days to respond to the plaintiffs’ latest submission to the court, Ahearne said. After that, the state Supreme Court will issue its response to the Legislature’s 2014 progress report, which could take months.

Any further action by the Legislature this year would require a special session, as lawmakers aren’t scheduled to meet again until January.

Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, said it’s unclear whether there’s political will to call a special session devoted to education funding. Lawmakers may not be any more willing to consider taxes or other measures to increase funding for K-12 education than they were earlier in the year, she said.

“I’m guessing a lot of it would depend on what the court ruling would say,” Smith said Wednesday. “Obviously we have been trying to very hard to get the Legislature to find new ways to put new revenue on the table to fund education, and those efforts so far haven’t been fruitful.”

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