By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
In an unusual and historically unprecedented outcome, Washington’s Supreme Court held the state in contempt for the legislature failing to provide a clear plan in funding public education by the school year 2017-18 pursuant to the McCleary ruling the court handed down in January of 2012.
According to documents the court in McCleary v. State, 173 Wn.2d 477, 269 P.3d 227 (2012) unanimously affirmed a declaratory judgment of the King County Superior Court finding that the state is not meeting its “paramount duty … to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders” under Article IX Section 1 of the state constitution. The court initially deferred to the legislature’s chosen means of discharging its constitutional duty, but retained jurisdiction over the case to monitor the State’s progress in implementing by 2018 the reforms that the legislature had recently adopted. Pursuant to its retention of jurisdiction, the court has called for periodic reports from the State on its progress. Following the State’s first report in 2012, the court issued an order directing the State to lay out its plan “in sufficient detail to allow progress to be measured according to periodic benchmarks between then and 2014.
The legislature failed to meet the courts demands for production of evidence of progress by the legislature and the court then found the state in contempt. The issue has brought up certainly the notion of separation of powers, but the possibility of sanctions has many in the legislature motivated to now act.
The McCleary decision derives from a rather complex lawsuit against the state on behalf of the McCLeary family and others who initiated an action against the state for inadequate education provided to children and thus violating the constitutional requirement for the state to provide basic K-12 education as a paramount issue.
Article IX Section 1 of the Washington Constitution reads:
SECTION 1 PREAMBLE. It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.
The court previously interpreted the preamble as being a core element of the constitution and not merely a formality. The history behind the case spans forty years. To digest, the Seattle School District suffered a great financial blow in 1972 when a double levy failed and the district was forced to take drastic action. The district sued the state for creating the conditions that required levies to fund basic operating expenses and shifting the burden to the local level. The State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the district and the legislature enacted several bills that among other issues returned funding sources back to the state with a ten percent cap on financing derived from levies. As costs for this mounted, the legislature provided waivers to the ten percent cap and some districts then became reliant on levies for operating costs; some caps were raised to thirty percent or more. Over time these and other reasons began to degrade the quality of education within the state. While the legislature provided for studies that recommended clear directions as to how the state could restore education quality levels, it became increasingly unwilling to provide the necessary funding. The liability began to grow with time as revenue sources for the state dwindled.
One study estimated the biennial funding requirement to be between two and four billion dollars. The legislature did not sufficiently act with legislation to provide this funding which ultimately resulted in Supreme Court action in 2012 with McCleary where the court interpreted that the State fully fund K-12 education.
In the Contempt Order it reads In 2013 the legislative session, the Joint Select Committee on Article IX Litigation issued a report on which the Court found that the State was not making sufficient progress to be on target to fully fund education reforms by the 2017-18 school year. Reiterating that the State had to show through immediate and concrete action that it was making real and measurable progress, the court issued an order in January 2014 directing the state to submit by April 30, 2014 a “complete plan for fully implementing its program of basic education for each school year between now and the 2017-18 school year,” including a “phase-in schedule for funding each of the components of basic education.”
The heat began to be turned up on the legislature when the Court ordered in June that the State appear before the court and show cause why it should not be held in contempt for violating the January order and why that if contempt is found that sanction or other relief requested by the plaintiffs in the case should not be granted.
During the show cause hearing on September third, the State admitted that it did not comply with the January order, but instead to provide the legislature with time during the 2015 budget session to develop and enact a play for fully funding K-12 by 2018.
The court held the State, but truly the Legislature, in contempt for failing to follow the lawful orders of the court. A mild constitutional issue resulted where some in the Legislature stated the court had no authority to usurp the separation of powers and had overstepped its bounds and entered into the procedures and politics of legislation. But the Court rejected this and stated that it “fulfilled its constitutional role to determine whether the State is violating constitutional commands, and having held that it is, the court has issued orders within its authority directing the State to remedy its violation, deferring to the legislature to determine the details.”
The court unanimously found the state in contempt of the January order but delayed imposing sanctions until after the 2015 legislative session where it would reconvene and review if sanctions would be imposed.
Options available to the Court to sanction the legislature or achieve compliance have been discussed and it is not clear as to what the Court could order. There has been speculation that the Court could declare tax exemptions unconstitutional or void specific budgetary allocations to force, at least fiscally, a sign that funding will be available by the McCleary deadline.
This certainly is proving to be an uncharted journey the government of Washington might find itself.
By Darren Smith
The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.