August 14, 2015 / 3:49 AM / 2 years ago

Washington state fined $100,000 a day over school funding gap

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Washington’s top court on Thursday fined the state $100,000 per day for failing to put forward a plan to fully fund education from kindergarten through high school, which the court said was required by its previous orders and the state’s constitution.

The state Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that Washington lawmakers had failed to “amply” fund basic public education for its 1.1 million public school children, and ordered lawmakers to come up with a plan to boost its education budget by billions of dollars over the next five years.

“Despite repeated opportunities to comply with the court’s order to provide an implementation plan, the state has not shown how it will achieve full funding of all elements of basic education by 2018,” the justices wrote in a unanimous opinion.

The court said the 2015-2017 budget makes “significant progress in some key areas,” but the state “wholly failed” to provide a plan to address a lack of funds needed to hire thousands of teachers or pay for facilities needed for smaller classes.

The court reiterated its criticism over the use of local property-tax levies to plug shortfalls caused by the state’s failure to pay the full cost of school staff salaries.

State Senator Joe Fain, a Republican, said “30 years of an unconstitutional levy structure has created unconscionable pockets of poverty where teachers and students have been victims of unequal funding.”

The highest state court’s decision stemmed from a 2007 lawsuit filed by parents who argued the state was not fulfilling a Constitutional requirement to fully fund what it costs to pay teachers, provide transport for students, and maintain buildings.

Lawmakers contend the 2015-2017 budget shows the largest increase in education funding in recent years.

The court ordered the state to pay $100,000 daily until lawmakers lay out a concrete plan by the 2018 school year.

The fine could amount to more than $14 million by the time the Legislature convenes in January, a fraction of the nearly $40 billion two-year operating budget.

The penalty may be mostly abated if a special legislative session is called and results in “achieving full compliance,” the court said.

Democratic Governor Jay Inslee said he and legislative leaders would meet on Monday to “begin the necessary and difficult work before us,” though he stopped short of calling all lawmakers back to Olympia for a special session.

Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Victoria Cavaliere

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