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Originally published September 1, 2014 at 5:13 PM | Page modified September 2, 2014 at 12:16 PM

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Guest: Former governors on why Supreme Court should tread carefully in McCleary education case

The state Supreme Court should exercise caution in its threats to find the Legislature in contempt for failing to fully fund education, according to guest columnists Chris Gregoire and John Spellman.

Special to The Times

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AS former Washington governors, we recently took the unprecedented step of joining every other living former state governor, Democrats and Republicans alike, in filing a “friends of the court” brief with the state Supreme Court. We urged the court to give the Legislature the 2015 session to adopt a sustainable basic-education funding plan.

As five governors who collectively served for much of the past five decades, we all concur with the court’s initial ruling in the McCleary case that the state has failed to fulfill its constitutional obligation to provide ample funding for the basic education of all Washington students. We support the court establishing 2018 as the deadline to correct that problem.

But the five governors differ with the court’s more recent order threatening to find the Legislature in contempt for not adopting a plan during its 2014 session for completely funding basic education by that deadline. A Supreme Court hearing is scheduled to take place on Wednesday.

Contempt proceedings could lead to a constitutional showdown between coequal branches of state government and would shift the focus from where it belongs — the education of Washington’s students.

As governors, we recognize the challenges and frustrations inherent in the legislative process. But it wasn’t realistic to expect a new, game-changing strategy for education funding to emerge from 2014’s short, non-budget session in an election year. Such sessions simply aren’t designed for such important and far-ranging legislation.

That’s why the 2015 session is so important: The two-year budget it produces will determine whether the Legislature will meet the 2018 deadline.

Legislators know this. On the campaign trail, many incumbents and challengers alike correctly declare their top priority for 2015 will be addressing school funding to comply with the court’s direction.

Some progress has been made. Despite the court’s initial ruling coming during the recent deep recession, lawmakers appropriated more than $1 billion in additional K-12 funding during the last full budget session. While that may not be as much as the plaintiffs — or former governors — might like, it’s still significant.

But even greater challenges lie ahead. Another $3 billion to $6 billion, approaching 20 percent of state general-fund spending, may be required per biennium to fully fund basic education. The teachers’ union class-size reduction ballot measure, Initiative 1351, could add another $2 billion-plus to the state’s basic-education price tag.

Importantly, legislators must address more than money to “make ample provision” for a school system that meets student needs, as our state constitution requires. In a rapidly changing world, the “basic education” of Washington’s children must include a broader range of skills than ever.

More funding must lead to improved educational outcomes for our students. Our state needs progress on graduation standards, career education, teacher preparation and evaluation, technology investments, and accountability measures to ensure that additional funding is being used wisely to benefit students.

Legislators are ultimately accountable to the public. They understand that their decisions are subject to public scrutiny. Those arguing that new revenues are the only answer should remember that voters recently have rejected new taxes for education and overturned general-fund tax increases imposed in Olympia.

Similarly, cutting critical programs to siphon dollars to education can’t be the answer. Early-learning programs are the best investment in preparing kids for school success. Social services like food programs, health care and foster care increase school effectiveness.

Our children can’t learn if they’re hungry, sick or homeless. Robbing higher education to fund K-12 shortchanges Washington students from competing for the best jobs in the innovation economy.

The longer 2015 session will allow for the necessary legislative give-and-take that goes into weighing budget and policy choices and developing a balanced, sustainable solution that brings results. If no action is taken this session, potential court sanctions could be justified.

In the meantime, it is premature and counterproductive to ask the court to find lawmakers in contempt for missing a funding deadline that is still four years off.

As former governors, we respect the separation of powers outlined in our state constitution. Rather than holding the Legislature in contempt or imposing its own education funding plan, the state Supreme Court should retain jurisdiction over the case, encourage further dialogue and require action within the Legislature and among the branches of government.

Keep the focus on the education of our children.

Democrat Chris Gregoire served as Washington governor from 2005 to 2013. Republican John Spellman served as Washington governor from 1981 to 1985.

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