NEWS to Washington Supreme Court: State’s promises go nowhere; it’s time for tougher sanctions

Despite repeated admonishments and a $100,000-a-day contempt sanction imposed by the Washington Supreme Court, the State has failed to make real and measurable progress toward fully and amply funding K-12 basic education for all children, its actions amounting to nothing more than a never-ending merry-go-round of unfulfilled promises to the Court and to Washington schoolchildren. That was NEWS lead attorney Tom Ahearne’s position in a hearing before the Court today. He urged justices to impose even tougher sanctions. (Watch a video of the full hearing on TVW.)

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From front: Stephanie McCleary and her son Carter; Halie and Robbie with their mother Patty Venema.

“The State has succeeded in running the clock out on the McCleary and Venema children,” Ahearne said, referring to the two families who, along with the NEWS coalition, filed the landmark school funding lawsuit in 2007. Three of the four kids are now in college; the lone remaining K-12 student, high school senior Carter McCleary, was a second grader when the suit was filed.

“It’s time to enforce firm sanctions … to give the State clear and unequivocal choices to comply in the 2017 legislative session … with this Court’s orders and rulings,” Ahearne concluded.

Among the sanctions NEWS has suggested to the Court: (1) invalidate all statutes in the unconstitutionally funded school system, effectively closing schools on the first day of classes in the new 2017-18 school year, or (2) void all corporate and other tax exemptions – except the one on food approved by voters – so that those dollars may be used to fully fund public schools. The 2017 Legislature could avoid either sanction ever taking effect, however, by simply complying with the court orders in this case mandating that the State amply fund its K-12 schools as our State constitution requires.

Ahearne said the State’s “plan” for complying with its constitutional duty as mandated in McCleary falls far short, rejecting claims by the State’s attorney, Alan Copsey, who told the Court: “The Legislature is making progress. It just hasn’t finished.”

Justices pressed Copsey with questions about his vow that the 2017 legislative session would finally result in the process and the resources to fund compensation improvements for teachers, which he claimed was the only outstanding compliance issue in McCleary.

“What happens if it doesn’t take place in the 2017 Legislature? I remember a couple years ago we got briefs and … promises they would act and there wasn’t any action and they didn’t even file a plan,” asked Justice Susan Owens.

“There is a specific legislative commitment to take action in this Legislature,” Copsey responded. “It is true that the 2017 Legislature could end up doing nothing. There’s no way for us to predict with accuracy or to control what the Legislature does. But this is something that is qualitatively different from anything that’s happened before … which is an active commitment from the Legislature.”

Ahearne began his remarks with a story about his younger siblings who liked to ride the merry-go-round. He didn’t like the carnival ride, he said, because it didn’t go anywhere. It just went around and around in circles.

“That’s what’s been happening with this case for the last several years,” he told the Court. “We’ve been on this merry-go-round before.”

He reiterated multiple Court rulings that said the State could not simply fund its own funding formulas and declare McCleary mandates had been met; it must fund the actual costs of providing students with a realistic chance to meet the State educational standards — including all-day kindergarten, K-3 class size reductions, compensation to attract and retain educators, transportation and more.

The Court is expected to issue a ruling related to the contempt citation before the end of the year.