Washington Supreme Court Upholds School Funding Structure: Disparities in School Employee Pay Not Unconstitutional

Spring 2010

By Michael J. Reitz

On November 12, 2009, the Washington State Supreme Court unanimously declined to declare as unconstitutional the state’s educational funding structure.1 The case asked whether the state legislature is constitutionally compelled to equalize state allocations to school districts for school employee salaries.

Case Background

In 2006, the Federal Way School District, along with district employees and students, sued the State of Washington, arguing that funding disparities violated the state constitution.

The Washington Constitution contains two relevant provisions addressing the state’s educational system:

Art. IX, Sec. 1. PREAMBLE. It is the paramount duty of the state 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.

Art. IX, Sec. 2. PUBLIC SCHOOL SYSTEM. The legislature shall provide for a general and uniform system of public schools. The public school system shall include common schools, and such high schools, normal schools, and technical schools as may hereafter be established. But the entire revenue derived from the common school fund and the state tax for common schools shall be exclusively applied to the support of the common schools.

Education funding is a complex formula of federal, state, and local funds that are distributed to individual school districts, and employees in different districts are often paid different amounts. For example, the state allocation to districts for the 2007-08 school year ranged from $32,746 to $34,612 among teachers and from $54,405 to $80,807 for administrators. Federal Way was at the bottom classification in all three salary allocation ranges. Additionally, the state’s per-pupil funding varied from district to district, from $2,766 to $3,707 (Federal Way received $3,005 per student).

The Federal Way School District alleged that the state, by allowing salary disparities between school districts, was in violation of Article IX, Section 2 of the Washington Constitution, which mandates a “general and uniform system of public schools.” The plaintiff s argued the state’s obligation is not just ample funding, but ample funding within a general and uniform system.

At trial, King County Superior Court Judge Michael Heavey ruled that the state’s funding model violates the “general and uniform” duty, and violated the state’s equal protection clause by paying similarly-situated school employees differently. The State appealed to the Washington State Supreme Court.

Oral Arguments

The supreme court heard arguments in the case on June 11, 2009. Senior Assistant Attorney General David Stolier, arguing for the state, said that where the “ample provision” for basic education is met, variances in school funding allocations are of no constitutional significance. The constitutional duty is to create a common education system, not to guarantee precisely equal funding to every district. The “general and uniform” requirement, he argues, deals with the structure of education: uniform academic learning requirements, graduation standards, teacher licensing standards, uniform discipline standards, and other elements. “We’ve got a structure so that a student in Nine Mile Falls, who transfers to Olympia, is going to get reasonably the same education.”2

Justice Debra Stephens, who mentioned that she served on a school board for 12 years, asked Mr. Stolier where the trial judge went wrong. “I think the trial court saw something that needed fixing, and did not trust the legislature to do it,” he said.3

Attorney Lester “Buzz” Porter, Jr., arguing for the school district, asked the court to uphold Judge Heavey’s order. “Then what?” asked Justice Stephens. She cited separation of powers concerns, and objected to a school system run by the courts. If the court were to rule for the district, she asked, what would the remedy be? Mr. Porter said it is not the job of the court to tell the legislature how to run schools. Only if the legislature failed to act would the court be required to provide a remedy. But it is within the court’s duty, he said, to explain what the state constitution means and requires.

Responding to the State’s argument, Mr. Porter argued that “you can’t divorce” Sections 1 and 2 of Article IX of the state constitution. The state’s obligation, he said, is not just ample funding, but ample funding within a general and uniform system. Noting the complexity of school funding formulas, Justice Stephens asked if it was a mistake to simply focus on per-pupil spending or district salaries, which are pieces of the entire school funding pie. “I wonder if your argument robs from Peter to pay Paul—if we equalize this, aren’t we creating non-uniformity in other categories of state funding because of the variances in district size? . . . We’re really talking about putting the entire system of educational funding on the table, aren’t we?”4

Justice Madsen asked what would happen to local control. “There are wealthier districts that want to have enhancements for their schools. If we put too fine a point on uniformity, don’t we take that option away?”5 She also asked about whether students have standing to sue in this case, wondering what harm the students have experienced when test results show the Federal Way School District outperforms many other districts in the state. Mr. Porter said the court shouldn’t confuse results versus opportunity. The state’s obligation, he said, is to provide an equal educational system and opportunity to thrive. Results don’t necessarily discount differential treatment.

Court Unanimously Rejects Invitation to Micromanage Education

The supreme court, with Justice Jim Johnson writing the unanimous decision, soundly rejected the school district’s case—overturning Judge Heavey and upholding the existing funding allocation system.

The court began by reviewing the history of educational funding in the state, noting that salary disparities have long existed—even at the adoption of the state constitution—but that the legislature has attempted to minimize inequalities. Prior to 1977, the state’s funding to school districts was determined through a formula in which minimum funding per pupil could be enhanced by certain weighting factors. Pay disparities were common due to “collective bargaining contracts, staff experience levels, and local school levies passed by voters.”6

In 1977 the Washington Legislature replaced the weighted funding formula with the Washington Basic Education Act of 1977, which provided a three-part approach for basic education: “(1) educational system goals, (2) educational program requirements, and (3) a new funding mechanism, called the staff unit allocation system.”7 The staff unit allocation system was not a uniform statewide salary schedule, and took into account the variances between individual school districts, using average salaries paid by districts in the 1976-77 school year.

The legislature continued to adopt measures to shrink salary disparities between districts and to increase education funding overall. As Justice Johnson noted, “Under the 1977 budget, the highest teacher average base salary was more than 150 percent greater than the lowest. By the 2008-09 school year, that gap had been reduced to 4.9 percent.”8

The supreme court then turned to the uniformity clause of the constitution (Art. IX, Sec. 2). The uniformity requirement, according to the court, mandates that every child has the same educational advantages:

A general and uniform system, we think, is, at the present time, one in which every child in the state has free access to certain minimum and reasonably standardized educational and instructional facilities and opportunities to at least the 12th grade—a system administered with that degree of uniformity which enables a child to transfer from one district to another within the same grade without substantial loss of credit or standing and with access by each student of whatever grade to acquire those skills and training that are reasonably understood to be fundamental and basic to a sound education.9

The court reviewed several cases that had addressed educational funding cited by the Federal Way School District but noted that each case addressed the constitution’s “ample provision” mandate (Art. IX, Sec. 1). “Our cases discussing article IX, section 2 make it clear that the provision requires uniformity in the educational program provided, not the minutiae of funding.”10

The court also held that the individual parents, students, and teachers challenging the funding allocation model are unable to show any direct harm and therefore were unable to meet requirement for justiciability.

In conclusion, the supreme court rejected the argument that the court should micromanage the education system when various constituents are dissatisfied with the legislature’s efforts:

The legislature’s use of the staff unit allocation system to fund education with differing salary allocations to school districts with historically disparate average salaries does not violate article IX, section 2, although there remains a slight gap between the highest and lowest salary funding statewide. There is no showing that the legislature’s funding allocations, including those for Federal Way School District, do not constitute “ample provision for the education of all children” as required under article IX, section 1. The legislature has acted well within its constitutional authority and its duty to make ample provision for the education of children and to provide for a general and uniform system of education under article IX.11



1 Federal Way School Dist. No. 210 v. State, 219 P.3d 941 (2009).

2 Video recording of arguments available at: http://www.tvw.org/media/mediaplayer.cfm?evid=2009060018B&TYPE=V&CFID=5 537430&CFTOKEN=94483622&bhcp=1.

3 Id.

4 Id.

5 Id.

6 Federal Way School Dist. No. 210 v. State, 219 P.3d at 943.

7 Id. at 944.

8 Id. at 945.

9 Id. at 946-47.

10 Id. at 948.

11 Id. at 950.

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