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Historical Background

In 1974 the Supreme Court of Washington upheld the state's system of funding and operating the 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. Relying on the language of the state constitution, 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 "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, 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 Basic Education Act to include these programs.

Recent News

Federal Way

On November 20, 2006, the Federal Way School District and a number of individual plaintiffs in the district asked a State Superior Court to declare Washington State’s school funding system unconstitutional under the state constitution, in Federal Way School District v. State of Washington. Alleging that the funding system is “arbitrary and irrational” and that it “fails to amply fund education in all school districts, including the Federal Way School District,” the complaint describes funding disparities that it claims are “not based on any geographic, demographic, student population, cost of living or other educationally relevant factor.”

On November 2, 2007, Judge Michael Heavey held in favor of plaintiffs, finding that the State’s method of providing salary funding was unconstitutional. Judge Heavey found that schools received funding for salaries “based upon a discredited and unconstitutionally funded system of 30 years ago,” before concluding that “[t]here is no rational reason to continue this.” Disparities in State funding for salaries were as great as $1,866 per teacher, $5,000 per classified staff member, and $26,402 per administrator, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

The Federal Way decision followed a legislative session in which an additional $1 billion in education funding was approved, including $48 million intended to address the disparities in salary funding.

On November 12, 2009, the Washington Supreme Court held that a “uniform system” requires uniform educational content, teacher certification, instructional hour requirements and a statewide assessment system, but not uniform funding of staff salaries. Federal Way School District, No. 210 v. State of Washington The Court did not, however, decide whether Federal Way or any other school districts were being denied “ample” funds to provide appropriate educational opportunities to its students as required by Art IX sec 1 of the state constitution.

McCleary v. State

On January 11 2007 a group of parents, advocacy organizations, and school districts filed an adequacy lawsuit, McCleary v. State, arguing that the state fails to fund a basic education for its children. According to Plaintiffs, the state’s current funding system is unconstitutional because it does not fund the Basic Education Program defined in Washington statutes. Plaintiffs claim that the state’s school funding system prevents Washington schools from providing resources needed for learning, including: reasonable class sizes, adequate personnel, facilities and technology, programs such as music and art, and extracurricular activities. The complaint argues that because resources are missing, many Washington students drop out of school and are not prepared to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens in a democracy and to compete in the global economy.

The complaint asks the court to rule that the state must “determine how much it will actually cost to deliver the Constitutionally required basic education to every child” and then fully fund that cost “with stable, dependable, and regular funding sources.”

In 2009 a trial was held in which attorneys for the plaintiff coalition argued in King County Superior Court that the state has failed to meet its constitutional obligation to fully fund schools. Attorneys for the state argued that recent (2009) legislation that would increase funding by $1 billion per year by 2018 rendered the case moot.

Judge John P. Erlick issued a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs in February 2010. Acknowledging “the deep financial crisis” facing the State, the Superior Court of the State of Washington, King County, nevertheless held, in a strongly worded 75 page decision, that making ample provision for the education of all children residing in its border is the state’s “paramount duty.” The court held that the state’s current aid formula is not “correlated to what it actually costs to operate” public schools and therefore unconstitutional.

In his decision, Judge John P. Erlick reviewed in detail the constitutional concept of “education,” which he emphasized as “the basic knowledge and skills needed to compete in today’s economy and meaningfully participate in this State’s democracy.” He explained that this constitutional concept encompasses both the detailed substantive skills that the state Supreme Court had described in its 1978 adequacy decision, Seattle Sch. Dist. no. 1 v. State, and the basic knowledge and skills the State had articulated in its Basic Education Act and in the Essential Academic Learning requirements that have been adopted since that time.

The remedy the court ordered requires the legislature to “proceed with real and measurable progress to… 1) establish the actual cost of amply providing all Washington children with the education mandated by this court’s interpretation of Article IX, §1, and 2) to establish how the…State will fully fund that actual cost with stable and dependable State sources.”

The State of Washington filed an appeal in March 2010, in order to “ensure the Legislature has the greatest flexibility to address public school funding in the future,” according to a spokeswoman for the Attorney General. The Plaintiffs filed an a responsive brief on September 20, 2010, addressing the State’s four major issues—defining education, determining actual cost, stable and dependable funding, and the State’s failure to provide adequate education. The case has not yet been scheduled for argument.

In December 2010 the Washington Supreme Court rejected a constitutional challenge to the state’s method of funding special education. Plaintiffs, the School District’s Alliance for Adequate Funding of Special Education, had argued 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, requiring many districts to supplement state funding with local levies in order to meet the needs of their students with disabilities. The court’s holding is likely to have little precedential significance outside of the State of Washington, since it is based on the intricacies of the state’s statutory system for meeting constitutional “ample” funding requirements. As Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn said in reacting to the decision, the real issue regarding education finance is whether schools are amply supported and the real debate lies in the other school lawsuit (McCleary v. State) pending before the court. "When the state amply funds education, all students, including those who receive special education services, will benefit," Dorn noted.

Useful Resources:

Diane W. Cipollone, Defining a "Basic Education": Equity and Adequacy Litigation in the State of Washington (Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Inc., December 1998)

Last updated: January 2011