The Attorney General's Office says Washington state has fulfilled its constitutional requirement to properly fund education and contends the state Supreme Court should drop a contempt order against the state.
In a court filing Monday, July 31, attorneys for the office of Attorney General Bob Ferguson wrote that “it is time for this case to end.”
The memo was filed to the high court alongside a bipartisan legislative report detailing the Legislature's progress this year on education funding.
Lawmakers ended a marathon session last month in which they approved a plan to increase spending on K-12 public schools by $7.3 billion over the next four years. The state has been in contempt of court since 2014 for lack of progress on satisfying a 2012 ruling that found that school funding was not adequate.
Lawmakers had previously put more than $2 billion toward the issue since the ruling, but the biggest piece remaining of the court order 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 court had said lawmakers needed a funded plan in place before the Legislature adjourned this year in order to meet a Sept. 1, 2018 deadline the court had set. Supreme Court justices also have been levying a $100,000-per-day fine as part of the contempt order.
The plan approved and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee 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 — would ultimately raise property taxes for some districts and lower them in others.
“The 2017 legislation will not end debate over educational policy. Nor does it ‘complete’ ongoing adjustments to improve the system — indeed it specifically contemplates and provides for ongoing review to allow policy adjustments and ensure continuing funding adequacy,” the filing reads. “But the 2017 Legislature has done what the Court required in its 2012 decision: it has acted to complete the implementation of full state funding for the state program of basic education, eliminating unconstitutional reliance on local levies to fund basic education.”
Tom Ahearne, the attorney for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the state, said that lessening the money from the local levy system and handing it back through the statewide property tax is not the way to amply fund the schools.
“They're reshuffling deck chairs,” he said.
Even though he signed the bill, Inslee has criticized the statewide property tax element.
“If there's an opportunity to look for other ways to fund our schools and lower property taxes, he'll want to do that,” spokeswoman Jaime Smith said in an email Tuesday, Aug. 1.