McCleary plaintiffs say state budget for education falls short

KING 5's Greg Copeland reports.

When state lawmakers announced last week they had finally found enough common ground to fully fund state education, there were plenty of skeptics. Among them was Tom Ahearne, the lead attorney for the McCleary family.

"This budget doesn't come close to what the state's been telling the court it was going to do," said Ahearne.

He says under the Washington Supreme Court ruling in McCleary vs. the State of Washington, the state needed to come up with $7.3 billion per year to pay more teachers, more classrooms, etc. But he says the lawmakers' budget sets aside $7.3 billion over four years, not one. And the numbers get worse once you subtract the $3 billion the state will lose once the school levy caps kick in next year.

"So that's a gross of about $4 billion. Over four years, that's about a billion a year," he said.

Just Thursday, Governor Jay Inslee touted the agreement he signed as better than promised.

"This is McCleary plus, because this plan puts in around $5 billion of money on top of substituting state money for local levy dollars," said Governor Inslee. "So there is an additional investment above and beyond what I believe is actually required by McCleary."

"I don't know why the governor thinks that, but whatever the governor says about that, he's wrong," said Ahearne.

He believes most lawmakers are simply unaware of all the promises the state made to the court about how and when it would fund education.

"The whole concept of McCleary was to give equitable treatment of our kids so they all have an opportunity, they've all got a good classroom, they've all got the resources they need. And that's fundamentally what this bill does," said Inslee.

"That's not what McCleary's about, at all," said Ahearne. "There's a separate provision in the constitution that talks about a uniform school system. That's not part of this case at all. This case is, are you amply funding the education of every single child. And this budget doesn't do it."

Instead, he says it redistributes some of the money from wealthier districts to those with less funding.

"But at least everyone is being cheated equally," he said.

So where does that leave us? Well, the state has until the end of July to submit its funding package to the court. Then plaintiffs will have until the end of August to file a rebuttal. Ahearne expects a ruling will most likely come in the fall.

If justices decide lawmakers did not fulfill the state's obligation, it's anyone's guess as to what might happen.

Lawmakers have already been held in contempt and fined $100,000 a day for two years. So what next? Ahearne says the court could follow the lead of Arizona, Kansas, and New Jersey and threaten to invalidate unconstitutional statues, which would essentially shut down schools.  Or, it could invalidate the $15 billion in tax breaks the state hands out.

"If you have to amply fund the schools before anything else, which is what the Constitution says, you have to fund the schools before you give out tax breaks, we can invalidate the tax breaks as unconstitutional," said Ahearne. "$15 billion gives you all the money you need."

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