Four years ago, the Washington Supreme Court held that the state’s education finance system was unconstitutional; it gave the legislature until 2018 to phase-in a comprehensive remedy and ordered the legislature to file annual reports on its progress toward that goal. After finding that recent reports had failed to provide “a complete plan” for fully implementing constitutional requirements by 2018, last year, the Court held the legislature in contempt and ordered daily $100,000 fines until such a plan is developed. (See summary of WA litigation history.)
In May, the legislature submitted its annual report to the Court. The report acknowledged that although funding for education has increased by $4.6 billion since 2010, substantial additional funding is needed to meet the constitutional requirement that the state pay the full costs of a “basic education.” The main outstanding issue is the need for the state to fully fund salaries for teachers and other school employees and to eliminate inequities caused by the need for local school districts to pay much of these costs from local property tax levies. The legislative report said that the legislature is compiling information necessary to make data-based revisions to the state’s salary allocations, and that it has established deadlines and deliverables so that these reforms will be enacted in the 2017 legislative session, and may be implemented in 2018, as directed by the Court.
In a forceful response, the plaintiffs filed a lengthy brief in June arguing that the legislature’s response was not a plan; they asserted that it was merely a continuation of its past pattern of “kicking the can down the road” and that eventually “you run out of road.” Plaintiffs are now asking the Court to impose drastically increased sanctions if the legislature does not fully comply with the Court’s orders during next years’ legislative session. These sanctions would include either eliminating all tax exemptions in order to substantially increase education funding or prohibiting further state funding and essentially closing down the schools statewide as of the first day of the 2017-2018 school year, if the State has not come into compliance by that date.
Earlier this month, the Court issued an order requiring the parties to appear at a hearing on September 7, 2016. The issues to be covered at the hearing will include (1) what remains to be done to timely achieve constitutional compliance, (2) how much it is expected to cost, (3) how the State intends to fund it. The Court also stated that “A decision on whether to dismiss the contempt order or to continue sanctions will be determined by order following the hearing.”