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Originally published Saturday, August 30, 2014 at 4:06 PM

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Editorial: State Supreme Court should be cautious in McCleary school-funding case

The Supreme Court should not hold the Washington Legislature and the governor in contempt of court over school funding.

Seattle Times Editorial

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THE state Supreme Court summons the Legislature and the governor to the Temple of Justice Wednesday for one of the most momentous hearings in Washington history — a showdown over school funding that could shake the foundations of state government.

Ultimately the court might declare the other two branches in contempt, test the limits of the state constitution, launch troubles unknown, and no doubt diminish respect for all parties involved.

The Supreme Court should not do that. The court can hold the rest of state government in contempt, but the contempt surely will go both ways.

The Legislature has plenty of time to resolve the enormous school-funding challenge laid out by the court’s 2012 decision, McCleary v. State of Washington. The court should not risk creating a crisis of authority and procedure.

Better for the justices to give everyone a good talking-to and let them get to work.

The court’s McCleary ruling has done much to spur the Legislature to step up to its constitutional obligation to fully fund education. Three decades after the Supreme Court interpreted a vague sentence in the constitution to mean that basic K-12 education is the state’s top spending priority, the justices ruled the state isn’t meeting its obligation. They are right about that, though Washington citizens and the Legislature ought to see the problem in a broader way than the court does.

Current challenges for our education system are greater than anyone dreamed when the constitution was written in 1889. The Legislature and the governor are far better equipped to deal with what really are political questions: How do we prepare children adequately for the future, for their own advancement and for the preservation of society? How do we provide adequate financing for education at all levels, from prekindergarten to graduate school? How do we provide the most effective programs that allow our children to learn?

Lawmakers should ask these questions every time they meet. School-reform efforts have been under way for a generation; early learning is now regarded as an essential state function. But the focus slipped as state funding for education declined. The court rightly points out that too much money still comes from local school levies, creating a system in which rich districts provide better education than poor districts.

The Legislature needed a good swift kick to jump-start this difficult debate. The McCleary ruling has done that. With regard to K-12 finance, the only area where the court really has authority, lawmakers are looking for ways to pay for an ambitious program they approved in the recession years of 2009 and 2010. These bills might never have been funded without the court’s prodding. The total additional obligation might be about $4 billion, though that figure is a matter of debate.

So far the Legislature has found a way to raise a quarter of that amount, in the budgets it has written over the last two years. That’s a promising start that demonstrates its desire to comply with the court’s deadline to settle things by the 2017-2018 school year.

But the court appears frustrated that the Legislature has not moved at light speed. Disregarding the statehouse’s two-year budgeting practice, the court in January ordered the Legislature and the governor to come up with a funding plan by April. In June, furious that they hadn’t, the court demanded they appear in court to explain themselves at 2 p.m. Wednesday.

The court should not hold the Legislature and governor in contempt, which would impose artificial dictates that would eliminate their flexibility and stifle that larger debate. Lawmakers have an important job to do. The court should let them do it.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, Robert J. Vickers, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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