A frustrated State Supreme Court finally made good with its threat of sanctions, imposing a $100,000 per day fine against the state government for the Legislature’s failure to deliver a plan showing how it would fund education in the landmark McCleary case.
The Court commended the Legislature’s progress this past session towards funding education, including:
- approximately $180 million for all-day kindergarten (one year ahead of schedule)
- $350 million towards K-3 class size reduction
- Full funding for student transportation costs ($250 million for the biennium)
- Full funding for materials and supplies for students (from $546 per pupil in 2011-12 to $1,237 per pupil in 2016-17 or $1.4 billion for the biennium).
The Court nonetheless found the Legislature had come up short in two areas: ending over-reliance on locally-raised taxes (levies) to pay teacher and staff salaries, and complete funding of K-3 class-size reductions, including the cost of building new classrooms.
While the Court cannot order a special session, in their order the Justices encouraged Governor Jay Inslee to do just that – convene yet another special session for the sole purpose of finishing the remaining work in McCleary. Inslee would not commit to what would be the fourth special session this year, but will instead meet with legislative leaders early next week to discuss options moving forward.
According to the Court, the biggest obstacle remaining is an overhaul of our state’s system of paying teachers, staff and administrators. For the past 30 years, this system has evolved to the point where most districts use locally-raised dollars (levies) to help pay a portion of salaries that the state doesn’t (in some districts up to one-third of salaries come from levies), creating an inequitable system that favors property-rich districts over property-poor ones.
This past session both the Senate and House considered bills to resolve this issue, but could not reach an agreement. The Legislature did end up passing pay increases, a cost-of-living adjustment and some benefits increases for teachers. But yesterday’s order made it clear that the state, not local districts, must find a way to pick up the teacher/staff salary tab. And until that happens, the contempt order will remain and the fines will continue to pile up.
The Court did not recommend a specific solution to fix the teacher/staff pay system. In fact, in a remarkable departure from its prior opinions, the Court walked back its previous consideration and implicit support for a levy swap as part of the McCleary solution. That backtracking sparked much discussion, and may make it harder to build the bipartisan political consensus needed moving forward.
Reactions to and analysis of what the Court’s order means and how it will guide the Legislature were mixed. Here’s a sampling:
- “The court today made it clear that bolder and more aggressive action is needed to support Washington’s students and their teachers.” Gov. Inslee in a written statement.
- “I thought that the Supreme Court was very restrained in its intervention.” Rep. Chad Magendanz (R-Issaquah) via The Seattle Times.
- “Everyone knows that the court is dead-dog serious and we are, too.” Rep. Reuven Carlyle (D- Seattle) via The Seattle Times.
- “No matter what the court does, the problems would still remain and the obligation of the Legislature to act is still the same. We spend 250 times that much every day on basic education. If that’s how the court wants to make their point, that’s fine. That is money that is going to be spent on public education no matter what.” Sen. Joe Fain (R-Auburn) via The Everett-Herald.
- “The court is clearly trying to walk a line here.” Sen. David Frockt (D-Seattle) via The Tacoma News Tribune.
- “I am very pleased by the State Supreme Court’s order today.” Randy Dorn, State Superintendent of Instruction in a written statement.
By practically every measure, the Legislature made history this past session with record investments in education, reversing a 30-year trend in our state where education was funded last, not first. Their work earned high praise from editorial boards, education groups and advocates across the state. It’s not surprising that the last remaining issue in the McCleary case is also the most politically charged – finding a way to work with school districts, school boards, the teachers union, parents, students and ultimately the voters to overhaul a teacher pay system that relies too much on locally-raised tax dollars, with the aim of returning responsibility for teacher pay to the state to make it more equitable. This work won’t be easy, but we’re confident the Legislature will continue to build on its momentum from last session, and find a solution that works for all students in every part of the state.
Photo credit: Aidan Wakely-Mulroney