It was nearly a decade ago that the McCleary family sued the state of Washington over school funding. In the years since, the state Supreme Court has sided with the family, found the state in contempt of court and imposed a $100,000 per day fine.
Now the justices are trying to decide if it’s time to lift that sanction or double down. Both sides were back in court Wednesday.
Carter McCleary was in second grade when his parents became the lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit over school funding. Today, he’s a high school senior. Standing outside Washington’s Temple of Justice, he gave the state a failing grade.
“I think it’s kind of ridiculous how it’s taken this long for anything to happen and I think that what has happened isn’t nearly enough,” McCleary said.
New sanctions on the state?
Inside the court, the justices heard something similar from Carter McCleary’s attorney, Tom Ahearne. He said the state has effectively run out the clock on the children whose families first brought this lawsuit nearly a decade ago.
He called the current fine ineffective. And he urged the justices to impose one of two possible new sanctions: suspend all 600-plus tax exemptions on the books to free up billions of dollars for school or, alternately, declare all school statutes unconstitutional.
“Given all the time that’s gone on that is the only effective way to coerce compliance with the court orders and the court rulings in this case by the deadline,” Ahearne said.
That deadline is looming next year.
The lawyer for the state made the opposite argument. Deputy Solicitor General Alan Copsey asked the court to lift the daily fine imposed in August of 2015 -- total fines have now accrued to $39 million.
Copsey noted because of the court case the legislature has put billions more into education in recent years. He also pointed to a law passed earlier this year that sets 2017 as the deadline for the state to stop relying on local taxes to fund basic education.
He compared the legislature to a runner entering the 15th mile of a marathon.
“Now I’m not at the end yet, I still have a ways to go and maybe that’s the hardest part,” Copsey said. “But I have made progress.”
That hardest part Copsey is talking about is figuring out how the state is going to fund salaries that are competitive enough to recruit and retain teachers and staff. It’s the one big yet undone piece in the McCleary puzzle and could cost $3 billion a year by one estimate.
Copsey said the key question is where’s the money going to come from.
“That’s the solution that needs to be addressed. And we know the sources,” Copsey said. “The legislature can increase taxes, adopt a new tax it can reduce or eliminate tax preferences, it can take money from other programs and spend it on education or it can do some combination of those.”
Implications for students
Throughout the hour long hearing, the justices asked skeptical questions of both sides without hinting at how they will rule. But outside on the steps of the Temple of Justice, Republican state lawmakers ominously warned the state Supreme Court is on the verge of shutting down schools. They were referring to the potential impact if all school statutes were declared unconstitutional.
“We are here today to remind the people of Washington of the collateral damage this court will cause if they so order,” state Rep. Matt Manweller said. He was flanked by a small group of students and their parents with signs that read “Stop Judicial Activism.”
Also turning out for the hearing, members of Washington’s teachers’ union. They wore red t-shirts that said “I Teach Washington.” Among them Carol Rivera who teaches middle school science. She wasn’t willing to say what the court should do, but believes it must remain involved in the case.
“There needs to be pressure still applied in order to get the compliance that is needed for our kids,” Rivera said.
How the court decides to proceed could have significant implications for the more than one million school children in Washington and the already tense relationship between the court and the legislature.