Washington Court and Legislature Nearing Showdown Over School Funding

Last Updated: July 28, 2014

This article appeared in the July 2014 Rural Policy Matters.

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When the Washington State Supreme Court issued its January 2012 ruling in the school finance lawsuit, McCleary v. Washington, it gave the legislature until the 2017–18 school year to devise a new funding system that meets constitutional muster. Importantly, the Court required the legislature to submit annual reports on its progress toward meeting the funding goal, an estimated $6 billion more each year than the state was spending.

In January 2014, the Court instructed lawmakers to include a timeline for phasing in additional funding in this year’s annual report. But the legislature did not address the timeline in its regular session and is unlikely to call a special session to take up the issue. Instead, legislative leaders point to $1 billion in additional school funding and say they will probably address the matter in the budget session, which begins in January 2015.

However, the $1 billion in new funding falls short of a previous legislative plan for meeting the overall funding shortfall, and the Court has scheduled a hearing for September 3 to decide whether lawmakers should be found in contempt for failing to submit the required plans.

The Court has a number of options available for pushing the legislature toward compliance. It could, for example, levy fines on lawmakers; it could limit state spending on non-basic education services; it could order lawmakers to pass laws to fund specific programs; or it could set a funding level and require the legislature to find ways to meet it. The Court could go so far as to put lawmakers in jail or stop all funding for education, essentially forcing the closure of schools, until the court order is met.

Few in the state think either of the last options is likely. But the standoff raises questions about how aggressive the Court will be in its efforts to require the state to meet its school finance obligations.

Ballot initiative to reduce class sizes

As the drama unfolds between the statehouse and the state’s highest court over school funding, voters will be asked to consider whether to pass a law requiring lawmakers to provide funding to reduce class sizes across the state. Currently, Washington schools rank 47th in the nation in average class size. If the law passes in November, it is estimated to cost an additional $3.4 billion.

The initiative, I-1351, which is being promoted by the group Class Size Counts, would not impose caps on the number of students in any given classroom. Rather, it would alter the ways schools are funded based on enrollment numbers as pegged to grade levels. For example, districts currently earn the rough equivalent of one teacher salary for every 25 students in grades K–3. Under I-1351, districts would earn a salary equivalent for every 17 students in K–3 and one for every 15 students in a high-poverty school. Ratios for higher grades would also decrease.

The group argues these changes would help the state meet the McCleary order.

Read more:

Coverage of McCleary v. Washington deadline:

Coverage of ballot initiative to reduce class size:

The text of I-1351

Read more from the July 2014
Rural Policy Matters.