McCleary lawyers argue for tougher sanctions against Legislature for not fully funding schools

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Some testy exchanges took place in the Washington Supreme Court Wednesday, with lawyers sparring over whether the state should continue to be held in contempt for not fully funding public schools.

The court has been fining the Legislature $100,000 a day since August 2015 for not obeying its McCleary v. Washington ruling to fully fund public schools; the total is now $40 million.  Yet, legislators still have fallen short of completing the court’s mandate.

“I don’t think the sanctions have been effective at all,” said Thomas Ahearne, attorney for the McCleary family, which brought the suit several years ago.

Ahearne and others argue that the state is still shortchanging kids by nearly $3.5 billion, and they want harsher sanctions until the court's mandate is fulfilled.

"The state is telling you the same thing the state’s been telling this court and the students in our school system for the last umptiump years," said Ahearne, "'trust us, next year we’ll finally get around to it.'"

Lawyers for the Legislature argue that lawmakers have made adequate progress and should be given another year to fully comply.

"We’ve admitted throughout it’s not fully funded yet," said Alan Copsey, of the state Attorney General's Office.  "But this is the last step coming up in 2017 to fully fund it.  We’re doing our very best to implement the very program that this court said we needed to implement in the 2012 decision."

Here are the steps the Legislature has already taken:

$2.3 billion McClearly investments:

  • All-day kindergarten
  • Elementary class size reduction
  • Bus transportation
  • Materials and supplies

What has been left undone is fully funding teacher salaries.  Currently, local levies are helping to fund basic pay for teachers, a practice the state's High Court has ruled unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court will rule in the next few weeks whether stiffer sanctions should be imposed on the legislators.