School’s out for many students, but state officials will be hitting the books after the Washington Supreme Court Thursday ordered those officials to be ready by the traditional first day of school to explain why they shouldn’t be held in contempt of court over school funding.
If not satisfied with their answer, the court could go as far as closing all schools until they are properly funded.
In a unanimous order, Supreme Court justices threatened to hold the state in contempt. State attorneys have until July 11 to file a response and must show up to defend it at a hearing Sept. 3.
The court, which twice previously found that the Legislature was not making adequate progress toward education funding reform, now accuses lawmakers of failing to comply with its latest order in what’s known as the McCleary case. Earlier this year, the court demanded a plan by April 30 for how they will phase in new funding along the way to their deadline of the 2017-2018 school year.
Lawmakers admitted in April they weren’t able to reach a deal on an implementation plan, saying they had debated some possible strategies for finding the money and might reach more consensus on those strategies next year.
One possible punishment, if the court decides to hold the state in contempt: “prohibiting any funding of an unconstitutional education system.”
That’s just one suggestion by the parents suing the state and cited in Thursday’s order. The court ordered the state to explain why it shouldn’t take such drastic measures, which also include cutting off funding to other programs, selling off state property, issuing fines -- or simply ordering a particular level of funding.
“I think that the court is quite appropriately applying pressure on the Legislature to meet our constitutional obligation,” said Rep. Ross Hunter, a budget writer and Democrat from Medina who sees a need for as much as a $6.8-billion infusion into schools to address the 2012 court decision that found lawmakers have inadequately funded schools.
Lawmakers agreed on a $1 billion down payment in 2013. Democrats pushed this year for raising new tax revenue to allow for a second consecutive year of major increases in school funding.
Republicans agreed to a small amount of new funding but said 2015, another budget year, would be the time to add more. GOP lawmakers want to set aside a portion of revenue increases for schools without raising taxes.
Some Republicans contend the court is straying outside its boundary.
“I would urge the Supreme Court to step back from causing a constitutional crisis,” said Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, who says only the Legislature can write budgets and scoffs at the threatened punishments. “We need to educate kids. Why would we allow schools to shut down just because the Supreme Court said so?”