Supreme Court hears landmark education funding case
The Washington State Supreme Court heard oral
arguments today (Tuesday) on a 2010 trial court decision
that the state is failing to meet its constitutional
duty to amply fund basic education.
McCleary v. the State of Washington—informally
known as the Erlick decision after the King County
Superior Court judge who presided over the trial—pits
what the state claims is an adequate system for funding
basic education in the state against what education
advocates claim is a system inadequate to provide a
realistic or effective opportunity to learn the basic
knowledge and skills required of today’s students.
The case was on appeal by the state, which was argued
by Bill Clark of the Attorney General’s office.
Clark said the state has an obligation to meet the
funding needs for basic education, but has no obligation
to fund the full operating costs of school districts or
protect districts from a decline in funding.
Responding to a question about salary cuts for
teachers imposed this legislative session, Clark
suggested that there would have to be evidence that this
paring back would have an adverse effect on students.
Clark argued that “enhancements” to basic education are
now properly funded at the local level through the use
of property tax levies.
Under questioning by Justices Debra Stephens and
Charles Wiggins, Clark said the reductions from the 2011
legislative session weren’t cuts to basic education, and
that student test scores were evidence that the state
was funding education sufficiently.
The case was originally filed in 2007 by Network for
Excellence in Washington Schools (NEWS), a coalition of
parents, school districts, unions, and community-based
organizations formed to advocate for changes to the
state’s system for funding education. Carter and Kelsey
McCleary are students in the Chimacum school
district—the lawsuit was brought by their parents on
Arguing for McCleary and on behalf of the
NEWS coalition, attorney Thomas Ahearne said three
decades had passed since the state Supreme Court had
last called the Legislature to task, and education was
still under-funded. Ahearne said the state knew how much
was required to fund basic education but hadn’t made it
a priority. The Erlick decision, he said, requires the
Legislature to step up and fund the students of today.
He argued it was the high court’s duty to require the
other branches of government to comply with the
constitution when they aren’t—as is the case in funding
Both attorneys were questioned about ESHB 2261 and
the sufficiency of the funding formulas adopted by the
Legislature in 2009 and 2010.
Ahearne said 2261 was a “sham,” and just replaced
existing titles, such as NERCs, with a new title—MSOC—
but didn’t get at the full funding. He also said the
Legislature had backed away from its commitment to full
funding this session, and that the formulas weren’t
based on actual costs of real school operations.
“We can’t just keep kicking the can down the road,”
said Ahearne, arguing that the remedy he was seeking was
full funding of basic education in a timely manner.
Ahearne urged the court to put the “most important words
they will ever put to paper” on the subject of education
by requiring the Legislature to cover the actual costs
of basic education in the state.
Clark agreed with Erlick that funding should be based
on actual costs but argued that state funding had
increased this biennium.
When questioned about the actual size of the K-12
budget, he acknowledged that as a percentage of the
overall state general fund, basic education had
decreased to about 44 percent, but that the current
system of funding basic education was still
Clark argued that 2261 was “much more than just a
shell game” but was instead the most substantial piece
of education reform legislation passed in the last 30
years. “Let the Legislature do its job,” said Clark,
arguing that it wasn’t the court’s role to determine how
much funding should be spent.
WSSDA spoke with both attorneys after oral arguments
concluded about when a decision might be expected. Both
agreed it would likely be before the end of the year,
but not a lot before.
To watch a replay of the arguments online, tune into