In a virtually unanimous ruling, the Washington Supreme Court began the new year by strongly affirming the trial court’s holding that the state was in violation of Art. IX, § 1 of the state constitution because it had not provided “ample” funding for the basic education to which all students are entitled. McCleary v. State. The court emphasized that funding for a basic education must be accomplished by means of “dependable and regular tax sources.”
Detailed explanation of students’ constitutional right to a substantive “basic education” has a long history in the State of Washington. More than 30 years ago in Seattle Sch. Dist. v. State, the Washington Supreme Court held that the constitution imposes a judicially enforceable affirmative duty on the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders. At that time, it directed the state to define, provide and adequately fund “a basic program of education.” Although the state’s detailed definition of “basic education” passed constitutional muster in 1978, the court now indicated that beginning in 1993, as the state shifted to a “performance based” approach to defining basic education, funding has lagged behind student needs.
Washington has a somewhat unique funding system since almost 75% of all educational expenditures come from the state, and the state is constitutionally obligated to fully fund the core basic education. The constitutionally mandated “basic education” essentially corresponds to the “meaningful” opportunities students need to meet state standards and “to compete in today’s economy and meaningfully participate in this state’s democracy.” The court held that the amount of state funding must “correlate to the actual cost of meeting [the state’s] basic education program.” Local property tax levies, which currently constitute about 16% of total educational expenditures, should be utilized solely for “enrichment” activities that go beyond the basic education mandate.
Although the court’s focus was on long-range funding issues, and only passing mention was made of the extent to which recent budget cuts had exacerbated long-standing funding problems, the court’s clear distinction between the “basic education” that must be fully funded by the state and “enrichment” activities that the state and the local districts may or may not provide, establishes an important precedent for cases in other states that focus on budget cut issues. Once the legislature has decided on the programs and standards that are necessary to deliver a basic education program, “the legislature may not eliminate an offering from the basic education program for reasons unrelated to educational policy, such as fiscal crisis or mere expediency.” In other words, “any reduction of programs or offerings from the basic education program must be accompanied by an educational policy rationale.”
Unlike its action in 1978 when it spelled out the constitutional requirements, assumed that the legislature would meet its responsibilities and terminated jurisdiction, in the present case, the court decided to retain jurisdiction in order to monitor compliance and to “foster dialogue and cooperation between coordinate branches of state government in facilitating the constitutionally required reforms.” It directed the parties to provide further briefing on the form that this jurisdiction should take, i.e. oversight by the trial court, by the supreme court, or by a special master or oversight entity.