In 1974, the Supreme Court of Washington upheld the state’s system of funding and operating its public schools in Northshore School District v. Kinnear, 550 P.2d 178.. However, only four years later, in Seattle School District No. 1 v. State, 585 P.2d 71, the same court ruled the state’s school finance system unconstitutional.  Emphasizing the specific language of the state constitution that considers education the “paramount duty” of the state, the court concluded that “the constitution has created a ‘duty’ that is supreme, preeminent or dominant.” Specifically, the court determined that it was the duty of the state to provide an adequate education to “equip our children for their role as citizens and as potential competitors in today’s market as well as in the marketplace of ideas.” To accomplish this goal, the court required the state to provide “sufficient funds” from “dependable and regular tax sources.”

In 1977, the legislature, responding to the lower court’s decision in Seattle School District, passed the Basic Education Act (“BEA”), under which the state assumed the responsibility for fully funding basic education and substantially increased state funding.  A subsequent suit in the early 1980’s, known as Seattle II, led a trial court to conclude that the legislature had underfinanced basic education in violation of the state constitution. The court broadened the definition of “basic education” to include special education, bilingual, and remedial programs. The state did not appeal the decision and the legislature revised the BEA to include these programs.

Federal Way

In November 2006, a group of plaintiffs including the Federal Way School District filed suit against the state alleging that the state was failing to discharge its constitutional duties to “make ample provision for the education of all children” and to provide for a general and “uniform system” of public schools.  The plaintiffs specifically took issue with the state’s salary allocation system, alleging that it was “arbitrary and irrational” and failed to “amply” provide education for the children in Washington as mandated by the state constitution. In 2007, Superior Court Judge Michael Heavey issued a ruling agreeing with plaintiffs.  Judge Heavey found that that the state’s salary allocation scheme was “based upon a discredited and unconstitutionally funded system of 30 years ago,” and concluded that “[t]here is no rational reason to continue this.”  Two years later, the Washington Supreme Court held that the state constitutional mandate of providing for a general and “uniform system” requires uniform educational content, teacher certification, instructional hour requirements and a statewide assessment system, but disagreed with the Judge Heavey’s finding that the constitution required uniform funding of staff salaries.  Federal Way School District, No. 210 v. State of Washington. The Court never decided, however, whether Federal Way or any other school districts were being denied “ample” funds to provide appropriate educational opportunities to its students as required under the state constitution.

School Districts’ Alliance for Adequate Funding of Special Education

In December 2010, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed a court of appeals’ and trial court’s determination that plaintiffs, an alliance of twelve school districts, failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the state’s mechanism for funding special education violated the state constitution.  The crux of the plaintiffs’ argument, which was rejected by all three courts, was that the state improperly included the basic education allotment, the state’s core foundational educational funding system, in its analysis of the amounts needed for special education, which then unconstitutionally forced many districts to supplement state funding with local levies in order to meet the needs of their students with disabilities.
McCleary v. State

In January 2012, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s determination that the state had not complied with its constitutional, “paramount duty” to “make ample provision for the education of all children in Washington.”  The case, entitled McCleary v. State, was brought by a coalition of parents, advocacy organizations and school districts who alleged that the state’s funding system failed to adequately fund the Basic Education Program as defined in the state’s statues.   All nine justices of the Washington Supreme Court agreed that that state’s constitutional obligations with respect to education, which were not being met at the time, could be understood as thus:

  1. to “amply provide for the education of all Washington children as the [s]tate’s first and highest priority before any other [s]tate programs or operations”;
  2. that the obligation to “amply provide” meant “considerably more than adequate”;
  3. that the state must provide for “each and every child” in Washington, without exception; and
  4. that a constitutionally adequate education must provide children with “the basic knowledge and skills needed to compete in today’s economy and meaningfully participate in [the] state’s democracy.”

In reaching its holding that the amount of state funding must “correlate to the actual cost of meeting [the state’s] basic education program,” the court emphasized that funding for a basic education must be accomplished by means of “dependable and regular tax sources.”  It held that the local property tax levies, which constituted about 16% of total educational expenditures, should be utilized solely for “enrichment” activities that go beyond the basic education mandate. 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, may have established an important precedent for cases in other states that focus on budget cut issues. The legislature cannot eliminate or reduce basic education programs or offerings unless justified by educational policy.

The Court’s remedial order accepted the “sweeping” reform plan the legislature had adopted in recent statutes, based on the cost analysis and program reforms recommended by a legislative task, and it also accepted the legislature’s commitment to phase the programmatic reforms and substantial cost increases they would require over a 6-year period. However, unlike the Washington Supreme Court’s action in 1978 – when it spelled out the constitutional requirements, assumed that the legislature would meet its responsibilities and terminated its jurisdiction – in McCleary, the court decided to retain jurisdiction in order to monitor compliance and to insure that the state adhered to its own stated timelines for adopting the reforms and appropriating the increases. “In March 2012, the state informed the court that the legislature had formed a joint select committee to communicate with the court about the state’s efforts to reach constitutional compliance.  The state pledged to submit an annual report at the conclusion of each legislative session through 2018 informing the court of actions taken by the state in furtherance of constitutional compliance.  Subsequently, the court ordered the state to also provide plaintiffs with copies of the annual reports, and allowed plaintiffs to serve written comments in response to the reports within 30 days.

In September 2012, the state issued its first compliance report to the court, conceding that progress had been slow on the legislative end, though claiming that legislators were working towards increasing funding.  The court determined that the report did not show that the actions taken by the legislature amounted to real and measurable progress toward achieving compliance by 2018.  Thus, after reviewing the report and plaintiffs’ response, in December 2012 the court ordered the state to develop a more concrete plan for how it intended to provide “ample funds” for basic education as set forth in the court’s earlier decision.  In June 2013, the state legislature moved toward partial compliance with the court’s earlier decision by appropriating $50 million to expand kindergarten services during the 2013-2014 school year, thereby doubling the number of kindergarteners in state funded full-day classes from 22% to 44%.  The appropriation, however, was not sufficient to achieve universal kindergarten, which would have required an additional appropriation of $100 million by fall 2017.

In 2013, the state issued another compliance report to the court, noting its commitment for the next biennium of appropriating approximately $1 billion above the then-current funding levels.  In January 2014, the court found the report constitutionally unacceptable. Therefore, the state was ordered to submit a “complete plan for fully implementing its program of basic education for each school year between now and the 2017-2018 school year” by April 30, 2014.  On April 30, 2014, the legislature issued a report effectively conceding that the legislature had failed to reach a “political agreement … on what the full implementation plan should look like.”  Plaintiffs promptly moved the court to impose sanctions on the state for failure to comply with the court’s orders.

On September 1, 2014 – in an extremely rare move for any court – the Washington Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the state was in “contempt of court.”  In addressing the purpose of a contempt order to the state, the court explained:

The court has no doubt that it already has the legislature’s “attention.” But that is not the purpose of a contempt order. Rather, contempt is the means by which a court enforces its lawful orders when they are not followed…. These orders are not advisory or designed only to get the legislature’s “attention”; the court expects them to be obeyed even though they are directed to a co-ordinate branch of government….

The court declined, however, to immediately impose sanctions or other remedial measures on the state.  Instead, the court decreed: “If by adjournment of the 2015 legislative session, the State has not purged the contempt by complying with the court’s order, the court will reconvene to impose sanctions and other remedial measures as necessary.”

In August 2015, the Court did impose sanctions. Finding that although some progress had been made, the State still had not adopted an acceptable “plan for achieving compliance by its own deadline of 2018,” the Court imposed a “remedial assessment” of $100,000 per day on the State until such time as the State develops an acceptable compliance plan.

In May, 2016, the legislature submitted its annual report to the Court. The report acknowledged that although funding for education has increased by $4.6 billion since 2010, substantial additional funding is needed to meet the constitutional requirement that the state pay the full costs of a “basic education.” The main outstanding issue is the need for the state to fully fund salaries for teachers and other school employees and to eliminate inequities caused by the need for local school districts to pay much of these costs from local property tax levies. The legislative report said that the legislature  is compiling information necessary to make data-based revisions to the state’s salary allocations, and that it has established deadlines and deliverables so that these reforms will be enacted in the 2017 legislative session, and may be implemented in 2018, as directed by the Court.

In a decision issued in October,2016, the Court, deemed this action to be insufficient:

In its latest report, the State continues to provide a promise—-“we’ll get there next year”— rather than a concrete plan for how it will meet its paramount duty. It forestalls taking action while awaiting the recommendations of its latest task force. In terms of demonstrating measurable progress, the State’s 2016 report offers no more than the previous reports the court has determined fell short.

Accordingly, having determined that its contempt finding and monetary sanction “at least spurred the legislature to take action in the 2016 session, committing itself to complete its task by the end of the 2017 session,”  the Court kept the monetary sanctions in place, established a briefing schedule for determining  shortly after the end of the 2017 whether compliance will have been achieved, and stated that upon reviewing the parties’ submissions at that time, it will determine what, if any, additional actions to take.

Thomas Ahearne, attorney for the Plaintiffs, had asked the Court to impose more drastic sanctions including shutting down the entire public school system until compliance is achieved or eliminating all tax exemptions in order to provide more funding for education. He now said that he was happy with the court’s ruling because it makes it very clear that those sanctions are still a possibility if the Legislature does not finish its work next year.

League of Women Voters v. State of Washington 

By a 6-3 margin, the Washington Supreme Court held in September, 2015 that state funds designated for “common schools” may not be used to support charter schools. League of Women Voters v. State of Washington. 

In 2012, Washington voters approved an act that provided for the establishment of up to 40 charter schools. The act stated that the new charter schools are public “common school[s] open to all children free of charge.” Under the act, charter schools must provide a “basic education,” similar to that provided by traditional public schools, including instruction in the essential academic learning requirements developed by the superintendent of public instruction.

Charter schools, however, are freed from many “burdensome regulations that limit other public schools,” thereby giving charter schools “the flexibility to innovate” regarding staffing and curriculum. RCW 28A.710.005(l)(g).  The Act further provided that charter schools are to be funded on the same basis as common schools.

Article IX,§§ 1-3 of the Washington Constitution directs the legislature to establish and fund “common schools,” and restricts the legislature’s power to divert funds committed to common schools for other purposes even if related to education. The key issue in the case, therefore, was whether charter schools qualify as “common schools” that are eligible for state funding under this provision.  The Court held that they were not. Relying on a prior precedent from 1909, the Court held that:

[A] common school, within the meaning of our constitution, is one that is common to all children of proper age and capacity, free, and subject to and under the control of the qualified voters of the school district. The complete control of the schools is a most important feature, for it carries with it the right of the voters, through their chosen agents, to select qualified teachers, with powers to discharge them if they are incompetent.

Here, the Court reasoned, because charter schools are run by an appointed board or nonprofit organization and thus are not subject to local voter control, they cannot qualify as “common schools” within the meaning of article IX.  Accordingly, it held that the common school funding provisions of the act are null and void; it further declared that because the common school funding scheme is integral to the legislative scheme, the entire charter school act is unconstitutional and void.

Last updated: August 2016