Washington Plaintiffs Victorious in School Funding Lawsuit

Last Updated: February 25, 2010

This article appeared in the February 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

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A Washington trial judge has ruled that the state is in violation of its constitutionally mandated "paramount duty" to amply provide for the education of all children. Washington’s constitutional education clause is one of the strongest in the nation, and the ruling has declared that the school funding system is out of compliance with this high standard.

In his decision, King County Superior Court Judge John Erlick ruled that the Legislature must now “ 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, Section 1: and (2) to establish how the “State will fully fund that actual cost with stable and dependable State sources.”

No deadline has been set for the legislature to act, but the ruling clarified that previous reform measures and studies would not constitute a sufficient response.

The state is in the process of revising its definition of “basic education,” with a schedule to implement that definition by 2018. But Judge Erlick noted that this process "doesn't require future legislators or governors to do anything."

The six-week trial concluded in October and included hundreds of documents and testimony from some 60 witnesses. The plaintiff Network for Excellence in Washington Schools (NEWS) coalition included more than 75 school districts

Local Funding Also Addressed

Erlick’s decision also said that school districts should not have to depend on the uncertainty of passing local property-tax levies to cover basic education costs.

A series of lawsuits in the 1970s had directed the state to find stable and reliable funding sources. After those school finance rulings, districts' reliance on local levies dropped to less than 10% of their budgets. More recently, rates have risen to about 20%. Just this month, many school districts held special elections and raised levies, mostly for school operations and maintenance. Some districts had bond and construction levies on local ballots.

In 2008, Washington voters narrowly approved a constitutional amendment in November that allows local school levies to pass with a simple majority (50%) of votes. Bond issues still need 60% of votes to pass.

Some state legislators are seeking a short-term solution to schools’ funding needs by raising the levy lid for districts. This proposal has been contentious and many people think it would widen gaps between property-rich and property-poor districts.Supporters say a higher levy lid would only last until the recession ends, or until 2018, when the Legislature has revamped the school finance system completely.

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Local coverage of the decision:

NEWS Coalition website:

Coverage of school levy issues:

Read the full decision here:

Read more from the February 2010 Rural Policy Matters.