SEATTLE — The Washington Supreme Court issued a decision Thursday holding the Legislature in contempt for its lack of progress on fixing the way the state pays for public education but withheld possible punishment until after the 2015 session.
The court promised to reconvene and impose sanctions and other remedial measures if lawmakers do not make plans to solve the problem by the end of that session.
Possible sanctions include fines for the Legislature or individual lawmakers, having the court rewrite the state budget, and revoking tax exemptions.
Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, the leader on education issues for the mostly Republican Majority Coalition Caucus, said no one likes being found in contempt, but he appreciated the tone of the court.
"It needs to get fixed now, but there is some appreciation that there were legislatures well before us that got us into this thing,'' he said.
The cost of the reforms has been estimated at $4 billion or more in each biennial state budget.
In its most recent budget, lawmakers added about $1 billion in education funding. However, the split Legislature — Republicans control the Senate, Democrats the House — has been unable to agree on where to cut elsewhere or how to raise taxes to satisfy the court.
Without including education measures in the so-called McCleary decision, the projected shortfall for the next spending period is nearly $1 billion. To satisfy the court, that deficit could be up to $3 billion for the 2015-17 biennium.
A statement signed by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen said the high court was not impressed by the Legislature's explanation about the lack of progress toward paying all the costs of basic education.
"Contempt is the means by which a court enforces compliance with its lawful orders when they are not followed,'' she wrote.
The state Supreme Court ruled in January that Washington's system of education funding is unconstitutional. It gave the Legislature until the 2017-18 school year to fix the problem detailed in a lawsuit by a coalition of teachers, parents, students and community groups.
The coalition's attorney, Thomas Ahearne, said Thursday's order was as good as he could hope for because the 2014-15 school year has started and a special legislative session probably wouldn't help kids this year.
"It wipes out all the excuses that legislators tell themselves why they don't have to do anything,'' said Ahearne.
Most states have faced lawsuits over the way they pay for education, but few have seen that conflict result in a contempt order.
In 1976, New Jersey's Supreme Court ordered public schools shut down for eight days over the summer after lawmakers failed to put more money into education. That crisis resulted in the adoption of a state income tax.
The Washington court's order is "a little more drastic than we've seen in some of the other states,'' said Robert F. Williams, associate director of the Center for State Constitutional Studies at Rutgers University law school.
In the original McCleary decision, the Washington high court commended lawmakers for passing 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 some of the expenses, the court said.
Among the reforms awaiting money are all-day kindergarten in every school; more instructional hours for high school students to help them earn 24 credits to graduate; and a new formula for school staffing levels and smaller class sizes.
AP reporters Gene Johnson in Seattle and Rachel La Corte in Olympia contributed to this story.