Washington School Funding Arguments Heard by State High Court


Last Updated: July 29, 2011
 

This article appeared in the July 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

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The Washington Supreme Court heard arguments last month in McCleary v. State, where defense attorneys argued that the state is funding “100% of the costs of a basic education,” despite almost $4 billion in cuts to education over the last several years. The state had appealed a Superior Court decision from last February (see RPM coverage here), which found that Washington is violating its constitution, which declares its “highest duty” is to “amply provide” for public education in the state.

The lower court decision ordered the Washington Legislature to determine the cost of amply providing for education and to establish how that cost would be funded. King County Superior Court Judge John Erlick’s decision also addressed the problem of over-reliance on local property-tax levies to fund education in the state.

That subject came up again during this latest hearing as the justices questioned whether any progress had been made on relieving low-wealth districts, especially, from the burden of trying to fill gaps in state funding by levying additional local property taxes. Justice Tom Chambers asserted to the attorneys that there had been “no progress in that regard.” Earlier Washington school funding cases from the 1970’s also found the reliance on property taxes inequitable. At that time, levy revenues as a percentage of school district budgets began to drop, but have since steadily climbed and currently average 16% of K–12 funding. In some districts that percentage is significantly higher.

How local levy revenues are used also became an issue at the hearing, when attorneys for the state characterized the items they fund as “enhancements.” This statement was meant to bolster the Legislature’s argument that a “basic education” is fully funded, but plaintiff attorneys, along with justices quickly listed the state funding cuts currently being covered with local funds: teacher salaries, teacher training, and class size reductions. Coalition lead attorney Tom Ahearne pointed out that many districts would be forced to close without levy funding.

The plaintiff coalition, Network for Excellence in Washington Schools (NEWS), includes more than 180 school districts in the state as well as a number of education organizations and nonprofits.

A decision is expected in several months.

Read more:

Coverage of the hearing:

NEWS Coalition website:

Read more from the July 2011 Rural Policy Matters.