Politics & Government

State attorney general to report to high court Monday on progress of education funding

Whether state lawmakers are ready or not, the state Supreme Court wants to know Monday how far they have come toward complying with a court order to boost funding for public education.

The state Attorney General’s office will update the state Supreme Court next week on the Legislature’s progress toward complying with last year’s contempt order in the McCleary education-funding lawsuit.

The high court held the state in contempt last year over lawmakers’ failure to deliver a plan to fully fund the state’s education system by 2018. The court delayed imposing sanctions, however, until after the 2015 legislative session, which will adjourn Friday, two days ahead of schedule.

Lawmakers appear headed toward a special session to reach a deal on a new two-year budget, as well as whether to agree on a plan for the state to pick up basic education costs that are now being paid unconstitutionally through local school district levies.

But even if lawmakers haven’t finished their work by the time the regular session adjourns, last year’s contempt order still requires the Attorney General’s office to respond to the court the first business day after the Legislature’s 105-day session ends, Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Wednesday.

That means the report to the court is due Monday, Ferguson said. The report is supposed to contain an update “on the state’s efforts to comply with the court’s most recent order,” he said.

Because the Attorney General’s office represents the state in the McCleary case, Ferguson wouldn’t share additional details Wednesday about what next week’s report to the court will contain, citing attorney-client privilege.

But Ferguson, a Democrat elected as attorney general in 2012, said he doesn’t believe the court will impose sanctions on the Legislature or the state due to lawmakers’ failure to come up with a budget deal by the end of the regular 105-day legislative session.

“I’m optimistic that the court will understand that the Legislature, while adjourning Friday, will be almost immediately going into a special session — that special sessions really are an extension of the process,” Ferguson said.

“If you were saying, ‘we’re stopping and not having a special session until October,’ that’s a different conversation,” Ferguson said.

In the McCleary case, the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the state was failing to meet its constitutional duty to fully fund basic education in Washington, and must do so by 2018. The court retained jurisdiction over the case, and has required annual progress reports from the Legislature each year since the ruling.

In January 2014, the court ordered the Legislature to submit a detailed, long-term plan for funding education. The court held the state in contempt in September 2014 for not complying with that order.

In its September 2014 contempt order, the court wrote: “On the date following the adjournment of the 2015 session, if the State has not complied with the court’s order, the State shall file in the court a memorandum explaining why sanctions or other remedial measures should not be imposed.”

This year, the House and the Senate are both proposing two-year budgets that would put at least $1.3 billion toward meeting McCleary requirements, such as expanding all-day kindergarten and lowering class sizes in kindergarten through third grade. Lawmakers are also discussing ways to shift basic education costs — which the court has said should be paid by the state — from local school districts to the state budget.

Ferguson said Wednesday he is confident that lawmakers will meet their education-funding obligations in the upcoming special session.

Frank Ordway, a lobbyist for the education advocacy group the League of Education Voters, said he also thinks the Legislature will do something — the question is just whether it will be enough to get the state out of trouble with the court.

“Obviously, they are going to produce something. There are two questions: Will it be meaningful for students and taxpayers, and will it satisfy the court?” Ordway said. “We’ll see what the court says.”