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.

In October, 2018, in El Centro de la Raza v. Washington, the Washington Supreme court held that  funding charter schools with lottery money — as distinct from state education appropriations,  does not violate the state constitution. Currently lottery funds support about 3500 students attending 12 charter schools in the state.

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.

After the state did enact measures designed to fully implement the new salary allocation model by the 2018-19 school year during its 2018 session, the Court held in June 2018 that the state had now met all of its obligations under the Court’s 2012 decision, and it terminated its jurisdiction of the case. The approximately $105 million in contempt penalties that had accumulated over the past few years were set aside in a special fund to support basic education.


Building on language in the Washington constitution that entitles students to an “ample” education and states that providing such an education is a “paramount” duty of the state, as well as the Washington Supreme Court’s ordering substantial increases in instructional funding throughout the state pursuant to these constitutional requirement in McCleary v. State, 269 P.3d 227 (2012), the Wahkiakum School District filed a case in state Superior Court in December, 2021 claiming a constitutional right to sufficient state funding to provide adequate school buildings to its children. Wahkiakum is a poor rural school district with 500 students. 

Specifically, the Complaint alleges that the district’s elementary, middle and high schools need approximately $50 million in construction funding “to safely provide the Wahkiakum School District’s …..students the “education” to which they have a positive, constitutional right under Article IX, §1 of the Washington State Constitution.” The district also states that it attempted to raise money to meet at least some of these costs by asking local voters to pass a bond measure to finance construction needs, but the voters did not approve that bond measure. Accordingly, the Complaint asks the Court to:

[R]equire the State to amply fund the construction costs needed to safely provide the Wahkiakum School District’s elementary school, middle school, and high school students the “education” to which they have a positive, constitutional right under Article IX, §1 of the Washington State Constitution. This amount exceeds $50 million. The full amount will be proven at trial.

Thomas Ahearne, the attorney who successfully litigated the McCleary case, is representing the school district in this litigation.

In June, 2022, the District Court dismissed the petition in a short one-paragraph decision that gave no reasons other than that the court had “considered all the material” submitted by the parties. The State had argued in its brief that its constitutional duty to amply fund K-12 education  does not include K-12 education facilities. 

In an unanimous decision issued in September 2023, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s ruling, holding that the state constitution:

(1) treats school capital construction costs differently than it treats other
education costs and (2) requires the State and local school districts to share the responsibility for those school capital construction costs. For that reason, we hold that the constitution does not include capital construction costs within the category of “education” costs for which the State alone must make “ample provision.”

In a lengthy decision that reviewed and reaffirmed the Court’s holding in past education adequacy cases, the Court held that “It is certainly true that students need buildings, labs, and gyms to gain an education,” But, they noted, “it is clear that the constitution as a whole treats funding for school capital costs differently than it treats funding for other education costs.”

It creates a “workable scheme,” they wrote, in which districts can raise money from passage of levies and bonds, and, if eligible, obtain funding from the state’s school construction program. The decision leaves untouched the existing process of requiring districts to provide some money upfront before they qualify for a grant from the state’s School Construction Assistance Program.

Associate Chief Justice Charles Johnson, in a concurring opinion, said the current system isn’t working as intended and can be unfair.

“The existing program does not help the districts that need it the most because they cannot pass the necessary bond,” he wrote. “The State should not selectively deny funds for high-quality education environments based on the district’s lack of local monetary support.”

He suggested that on remand the parties should discuss how much responsibility the State may bear for school capital construction costs if it is less than 100 percent of those costs, and whether article IX, section 3 creates an obligation that the common school construction fund be distributed in a manner that is accessible to the low income, rural districts.

Last updated: November 2017


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