State Courts Case Study | Basics of Court Group | April 25, 2016


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State Courts Case Study

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Washington State's Public School Crisis

“It is the paramount duty of the State to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.” WASHINGTON STATE CONSTITUTION ARTICLE IX, SECTION 1

In 2015, Washington state courts enforced proper education reform and appropriate funding, a decision that has impacted the nation. Legally, education is a concern of the state, and it is an area of consistent debate. Of 50 states, 46 have been taken to court for issues related to public education. During the 1970s and 1980s, the states were sued for not evenly distributing resources across the state. Since the 1980s, the argument pertains to whether states have sufficiently funded their education systems. Plantiffs maintain it is the state’s responsibility to ensure all children have access to quality education, however, it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of a state’s education system. Between 1989 and 2015, 22 state courts have deemed their state’s resources inadequate to provide a quality education. 15 state courts have determined their education system to be sufficient. 15 states are pending in their decision — a symptom of the long, complex nature of these types of cases, as they move up and down the judicial ladder of appeals.

In 2007, a group of citizens and a statewide coalition of community groups, school districts, and education organizations filed a lawsuit concerning the adequacy of resources for Washington’s public schools. In 2009, it was resolved in favor of the Plantiffs, that a minimum standard of education should be established, with an empirical figure that represents cost to educate per student. An education reform bill was passed accordingly. However, in 2012, it was determined that this bill had not been properly observed. The Washington Supreme Court decided that state funding “consistently failed to provide adequate funding for the program of basic education, including funding for essential operational costs such as utilities and transportation, which resulted in local school districts turning increasingly to local [tax levies] to make up the shortfall.” (p. 77). In 2014, when Washington’s education landscape remained unchanged, the Washington Supreme Court uniquely decided to “(hold) the state in contempt” (p. 77). If results do not change by the 2015 legislative session, the court will reconvene to implement sanctions, among other efforts to for improvement. In June 2015, the Washington Supreme Court ordered the legislature to create a plan to overwrite the current education system in Washington for each grade, to be completed for the 2017 – 2018 school year. The plan, approved by the Supreme Court, plans to ensure fully funded, quality education, implemented in by 2018 in three phases:

  • Phase I: Full state funding of transportation; maintenance, supplies and operating costs; full day kindergarten; and lower class size in grades K–3 (maximum 17 students per teacher)
  • Phase II: Full state funding of the salaries of current educational staff
  • Phase III: State funding for enhanced levels of educational staff and enhanced salaries

The McCleary vs. Washington case is an example, and a warning, to other states, particularly when most have made reductions to public school funding. The case in Washington exemplifies the time consuming and complex nature of the U.S. legal system, yet its capacity to provoke change regardless.


Underwood, Julie. “State Education Funding Is in the Legal Spotlight: Washington State Courts Have Boldly Ordered Education Funding and Implementation, a Legal Dispute That Could Have Implications across the Country.” Phi Delta Kappan (2015): n. pag. Web. 


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April 25, 2016

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