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Washington Supreme Court holds state in contempt

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SEATTLE — The Washington Supreme Court is holding the Legislature in contempt for its lack of progress on fixing the way the state pays for public education, but it is holding off on punishments until after the 2015 legislative session, according to an order issued Thursday.

If lawmakers do not complete their plan for fixing the way the state pays for public schools by the end of that legislative session, the court promised to reconvene and impose sanctions and other remedial measures.

In a statement signed by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen, the court said the justices were not impressed by the state's presentation at a hearing in Olympia, explaining the Legislature's lack of progress toward paying all the costs of basic education.

"The court has no doubt that it already has the Legislature's 'attention,'" she wrote, echoing comments from the state's lawyer from last week's hearing. "But that is not the purpose of a contempt order. Rather, contempt is the means by which a court enforces compliance with its lawful orders when they are not followed."

The Supreme Court ruled in January 2012 in what is known as the McCleary decision that the Washington's system of education funding is unconstitutional. They gave the Legislature until the 2017-18 school year to fix the problem.

The state was sued by a coalition of teachers, parents, students and community groups. The Washington Education Association paid most of the cost for the lawsuit.

In the McCleary decision, the court commended lawmakers for passing some reforms in the K-12 system and for starting to pay for them. Now they have to finish paying for those reforms and stop relying on local tax levy dollars to pay for basic education.

The cost to pay for those reforms has been estimated at $4 billion or more in each biennial state budget.

Among the reforms awaiting payment: all-day kindergarten in every school; more instructional hours for high school students to help them earn 24 credits to graduate; pupil transportation fully supported by state dollars; a new formula for school staffing levels, smaller classes in the lower grades; and more state support for school equipment and supplies.

The Legislature has been making yearly progress reports — three since 2012 — on its efforts to fulfill the McCleary decision, and each time, the court's response has been that lawmakers aren't doing enough.