SEATTLE -- When attorney Tom Ahearne received the latest McCleary decision to order contempt sanctions against the state for failing to deliver a comprehensive plan to fully fund education, he thought, "It's about time."
Ahearne, who has worked the case for the past eight years, represents Stephanie McCleary, the mom and school district employee who initially filed the case, along with another family. They won in Washington's High Court in 2012, when justices ruled the legislature is failing to fully fund education, as required by the state constitution.
"Since then, we have repeatedly ordered the State to provide its plan to fully comply with article IX, section 1 by the 2018 deadline," Thursday's court order reads. "…following multiple special sessions, the State still has offered no plan for achieving full constitutional compliance by the deadline the legislature itself adopted."
While Ahearne and the McCleary family will carefully watch what the governor and legislature do in coming weeks to address the issue, they call this a step in the right direction.
"She sees this as a step forward," Ahearne said of Stephanie McCleary. "The court is not just talking anymore, but actually doing something, encouraging the legislature and the governor to obey that oath they took to obey the constitution."
"We agree with the court that we have an unconstitutional levy structure that needs to be addressed," Senator Joe Fain (R-Auburn) told KING 5. "But this unconstitutional levy structure has been in place for 30 years, and it's created unconscionable pockets of poverty in school districts around the states of haves and have-nots for teachers and students who get less because of their zip code"
While lawmakers from both sides of the aisle agree on that issue, Republicans and Democrats disagree on how to fix the problem.
"I think it's inescapable that the conclusion from this order is that more revenue is going to be needed in the system," said Senator David Frockt (D-Seattle), who with Senator Fain sits on the joint committee on Article IX Litigation.
"We are going to have to forge a compromise, a consensus to move forward that has both Democrats and Republicans willing to support some kind of additional revenue," continued Sen. Frockt.
Frockt said he voted against the budget because it didn't include a plan to address the issues of McCleary. Governor Jay Inslee and House Democrats had proposed a capital gains tax to raise new revenue, but dropped the idea facing opposition from Republican budget negotiators and a looming government shutdown.
While some Democrats maintain tax reform must be considered to meet McCleary requirements, Senate Republicans disagree and instead have proposed a plan which would move some local levy dollars into a state tax to pay for education salaries.
The Senate Republicans chimed in with their plan, which would prohibit local districts from bargaining over basic education salaries in the future and would move some local levy dollars into a state tax to pay those salaries.
"If we don't find a way to take some of those local dollars, make them state dollars and then create a structure that's fair for districts, then we're going to continue for another 30 years of having an unconstitutional structure. And we'll keep all of our ideas on the table, but the idea of rushing out there for a giant tax increase could solve the problem, it's not—it could even make the problem worse," said Senator Fain.
"They have to increase the state's funding of our public schools. Not take money away from school districts and hand it right back to them. That's not increasing the funding," Tom Ahearne countered.
Ahearne admits he doesn't have the silver bullet, but he hopes lawmakers can come up with one.
Meanwhile, Stephanie McCleary only has one child left in high school. While her kids won't see the impact of their court battle, the family hopes future generations do.
"Our schools need more money to provide all kids a realistic and effective opportunity to meet state standards," said Ahearne.
The governor and caucus leaders are expected to meet on Monday to discuss how to proceed.
"There is much that needs to be done before a special session can be called. I will ask lawmakers to do that work as quickly as humanely possible so they can step up to our constitutional and moral obligations to our children and lift the court sanctions," said Inslee.