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State Supreme Court sets next steps in school suit

Wednesday - 7/18/2012, 9:15pm  ET

Associated Press

SEATTLE (AP) - The Washington Supreme Court on Wednesday gave another win to the coalition that sued the state over the way it pays for basic education.

In a follow-up to its January ruling, the court said the coalition of school districts, parents, teachers and community groups will get a chance to critique the Legislature's reports on its progress toward meeting the goal of fully paying for basic education.

In the two-page order signed by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen, the court also set specific deadlines for filing those reports, which must show "real and measurable" progress toward achieving full compliance with the Constitution.

The order left open the possibility of further action. It also set a firm deadline of 2018 to fix the way the state pays for education in Washington.

The lawyer representing the coalition called the decision fantastic.

"This is as good as I could possibly expect," Thomas Ahearne said.

The Washington attorney general's office was more reserved.

"We think that it strikes a good balance between the court's desire to monitor progress and the Legislature's decision-making authority," said Janelle Guthrie, spokeswoman for Attorney General Rob McKenna.

In January, the court ruled that the state isn't meeting its constitutional obligation to amply pay for basic education, but it also gave an endorsement to the reform work the Legislature already started.

That reform work was mentioned in Wednesday's order as a good framework for the future. The first report is due in 60 days. Future reports are due within 60 days after the governor signs the state budget each year. A copy of those reports are to be filed with the court, given to the coalition's attorney and may be published on the Legislature's Web page.

The coalition's attorney will have 30 days after that to file their written response and then the court will review the reports and decide whether to take further action, which could include asking for more information or directing the trail court to do further fact-finding or assigning someone else to oversee the process.

In their briefs to the court after the January decision, the coalition had asked for a role in the review process, while the state had argued against that idea.

"The court really is saying in this order: We take the constitution seriously," Ahearne said.

The 85-page ruling in January said the judiciary would keep an eye on lawmakers to make sure they fully implement education reforms by 2018.

The coalition won a lawsuit in King County Superior Court in February 2010. Judge John Erlick ruled the state was violating its constitution by not fully paying for basic education.

The state appealed, saying Erlick reached beyond the high court's previous ruling on this issue in 1978.

In the strongly worded conclusion of the ruling by the Supreme Court this January, the court outlined the ways the Legislature has failed to meet its obligations _ by talking about reform but cutting school funding at the same time.

This follow-up ruling closes the loop and lays out a plan for the next steps.

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