Washington High Court Rules Funding Is Inadequate

Last Updated: February 23, 2012

This article appeared in the February 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

Editor's note: Links are free and current at time of posting, but may require registration or expire over time.

The Washington State Supreme Court ruled last month that the state is not meeting its constitutional requirements and told the legislature to correct the deficiency. In its decision, the justices upheld the ruling of King County Superior Court Judge John Erlick, who, in 2010, held that the Washington State Constitution’s mandate to “make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex” was a responsibility that fell on the state, not local districts. (See RSFN coverage of the decision here.) Washington’s education clause is widely viewed as the strongest in the nation.

Rural plaintiffs, statewide issues

In McCleary v. State, named plaintiff Stephanie McCleary filed on behalf of her two children, Kelsey and Carter, and was joined by over 180 Washington school districts as well as education organizations and nonprofits. The plaintiff group’s coalition is Network for Excellence in Washington Schools (NEWS). The McCleary children are students in rural Chimacum School District in Jefferson County. Chimacum is a small town on the Olympic Peninsula where many students qualify for free or reduced price lunches. And, like other small and rural districts that participated in the lawsuit, Chimacum is a place where local property taxes have been unable to make up for severe education budget cuts from the state.

Local levies for education have long been a major issue in funding debates in Washington. A school finance ruling from the 1970s held that the state, not local taxpayers, was responsible for providing a “basic” education and that local funds should be used for “enhancements,” or programs over and above the basic framework. Reliance on local property taxes as part of education budgets decreased after the ruling, but slowly crept back up over the years. When voters turn down the levy proposals, districts respond by cutting programs and laying off teachers. And, because of lower property values, generally collect less money with similar tax rates than do wealthier districts.

Recession is no excuse

Washington Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in June, 2011. (See RSFN coverage here.) Attorneys for the state argued that a legislative plan to “amply” fund education by 2018 by increasing support for various programs including transportation, all-day kindergarten, and class size reduction was proof that the legislature was complying with the constitution. However, the court noted that many of those legislative commitments had not been funded, and that “This court cannot idly stand by as the legislature makes unfulfilled promises.” Also, legislation is pending from 2011 that would have removed the 2018 deadline completely.

Notably, the court rejected the argument that cuts in education funding were necessary to provide for other budget items, stating that education must be funded before any other state program: “the State must amply provide for the education of all Washington children as the State’s first and highest priority before any other State programs or operations.” The court also said that cuts may not be made “for reasons unrelated to education policy, such as fiscal crisis or mere expediency,” removing any justification to be found in the current economic crisis.

The court also retained jurisdiction over the case to keep up with the legislature’s progress: “What we have learned from experience is that this court cannot stand on the sidelines and hope the State meets its constitutional mandate to amply fund education.” It is not yet known whether this monitoring will be carried out by a special monitor, by the lower court, or some other mechanism. The ruling requests input from the parties on this issue. A hearing is expected soon.

Response to the ruling

Washington Governor Christine Gregoire has said she agrees with the court that the state must revamp its funding system and has proposed a half-cent temporary sales tax increase for schools. The state legislature is offering an “education-first” budget, although it is not clear that recently-announced revenue increases will cover deficits and all previous cuts. However, the budget may prevent some Washington districts from moving to a four-day week and will likely preserve the levy-equalization aid that helps support districts with lower property values.

Read more:

Local coverage on the decision:

Legislative response as session opens:

Read the full decision here:

Plaintiff coalition website:

Read more from the February 2012 Rural Policy Matters.