In 1978, the Supreme Court of Washington found the state’s school finance system unconstitutional in Seattle School District No. 1 v. State, 585 P.2d 71.  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 the state had a duty to provide an adequate education that prepared children to be “citizens and . . . 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.”

The decision represented a remarkable change of view for the state supreme court. Only four years earlier, the same court had found the state’s public school funding system constitutional in Northshore School District v. Kinnear, 550 P.2d 178. Seattle I thus marked a new era of education reform in the state.

The Seattle I case also coincided with major legislative reform. In 1977, the legislature passed the Basic Education Act (“BEA”). Under this act, the state assumed responsibility for fully funding basic education and substantially increased existing funding.

In Seattle II, a trial court found this legislation insufficient to finance the state’s school system. The court also 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 School District

In November 2006, a group of plaintiffs including the Federal Way School District filed suit against the state to challenge the state’s salary allocation system. Specifically, they alleged that the system was “arbitrary and irrational” and failed to “amply” provide education for children as mandated by the state constitution. The Washington Supreme Court, in Federal Way School District, No. 210 v. State of Washington, found that the state constitution did not require uniform funding of staff salaries. At the same time, however, the court did hold that the state constitution mandated uniform educational content, teacher certification, instructional hour requirements and a statewide assessment system.

School Districts’ Alliance for Adequate Funding of Special Education

In December 2010, the Washington Supreme Court declined to require reform of the state’s special education funding system. An alliance of twelve school districts had argued that the state’s funding system unconstitutionally forced many districts to supplement state funding with local taxes in order to meet the needs of students with disabilities. The Washington Supreme Court disagreed with these school districts, upholding the constitutionality of the state’s existing special education funding system.

League of Women Voters

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 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.

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.

According to the court, charter schools do not qualify as “common schools” eligible for state funding under Article IX §§ 1-3 of the state constitution. The primary rationale for this reading of the state constitution rested on charter schools’ lack of political accountability. Perhaps the most important feature of “common schools,” according to the court, is voter control. Voters, through their chosen agents, have the power to select qualified teachers – and the power to discharge them if they are incompetent. In contrast, charter schools are run by an appointed board or nonprofit organization and are not directly accountable to voters. Accordingly, the court declared the charter school act unconstitutional and void.

McCleary  v. State

In January 2012, the Washington Supreme Court held that the state had not complied with its duty to “make ample provision for the education of all children in Washington.”  The case, 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.

The court stated that that state’s constitutional obligations with respect to education, which were not being met at the time, could be understood to mean that:

The state must “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”;

The obligation to “amply provide” meant “considerably more than adequate”;

The state must provide for “each and every child” in Washington, without exception; and

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.”

It held that the amount of state funding must “correlate to the actual cost of meeting [the state’s] basic education program.” In reaching this decision, the court emphasized that funding for a basic education must be accomplished by means of “dependable and regular tax sources.”  According to the court, local property taxes should be utilized solely for “enrichment” activities that go beyond the basic education mandate.

In contrast to the Seattle decision in 1978, the court’s remedy imposed ongoing and stringent requirements on the parties. This time, the court did not merely spell out constitutional requirements, assuming that the legislature would meet its responsibilities. Instead, the court retained jurisdiction in order to monitor compliance and ensure that the state adhered to its own stated timelines for adopting reforms. 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 force, and it also accepted the legislature’s commitment to phase in the programmatic reforms and substantial cost increases they would require over a 6-year period.

For the next two years, the state attempted to achieve compliance. In September 2012, the state issued its first compliance report to the court, conceding that progress had been slow. After reviewing the report, in December 2012 the court ordered the state to develop a more concrete plan.

In June 2013, the state legislature moved toward partial compliance by appropriating $50 million to expand kindergarten services during the 2013-2014 school year. This appropriation doubled the number of kindergarteners in state-funded, full-day classes from 22% to 44%. The appropriation, however, was not sufficient to achieve universal kindergarten.

In 2013, and 2014, although the state continued to expand funding for education, the state continued to fall short of meeting the court’s mandates. In response, and in an extremely rare move for any court, the Washington Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the state was in contempt of court. When the state still failed to devise an acceptable plan for funding education, the Court imposed sanctions in 2015. Sanctions included a “remedial assessment” of $100,000 per day on the State until the State developed an acceptable compliance plan.

In May 2016, the legislature submitted its annual report to the Court. The report acknowledged the need to fully fund salaries for teachers and other school employees. It also recognized that leaving local property tax levies to fill in these salary gaps created inequities.  The legislature set forth deadlines for reforming these issues during the 2017 legislative session. The court deemed this action insufficient, however, in a decision issued in October 2016. 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 legislative session 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.

In June 2017, Governor Jay Inslee signed into law a state budget that included a $7.3 billion increase over four years for education. The goal of the funding increase was to align state education funding with constitutional requirements. However, the state supreme court held in November 2017 that the new legislation would commit the state to full funding for teacher salaries as of the 2019-2020 school year, but not as of Sept. 1, 2018, as the Court had ordered. The court decided to continue imposing sanctions on the state for failing to comply with the court’s order. It set a strict timetable for further submissions after the close of the 2018 legislative session and indicated that “upon reviewing the parties’ submissions, the court will determine what, if any additional actions” it would take before the September 2018 deadline.

Last updated: November 2017


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