Battles over school funding began long before the McCleary lawsuit. In fact, Washington has been arguing this issue for 40 years.

Share story

Every so often, the Education Lab team steps away from writing news stories to answer reader questions in a feature we call Education Lab IQ (short for Interesting Questions). Not surprisingly, many of you have wondered about Washington’s school-funding tangle.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab 

More than 260 readers voted recently on six money-focused queries, and we’ll answer them over the next several weeks. Today’s question was the top vote-getter: How long did it take to get this far behind in school funding and how did it happen?

Short answer:

Funding for public education in Washington has been scrutinized and debated at least since 1976, when the Seattle school district sued the state. “Faced with a deteriorating physical plant, a reduction in budgets for books, supplies, staff and programs” — not to mention two local levies to fill these holes shot down by voters — the district claimed that money to cover education was neither ample, as required in the state constitution, nor reliable.

Sixty-four other school districts — with 40 percent of the state’s students — were in similar straits, and in 1977 the Washington State Supreme Court agreed, mandating that more state money flow to public schools to cover the basics.

But definitions of what constitutes “basic education” expanded in 1993 and 2009 — to encompass kindergarten, remedial and highly-capable programs and transportation, among other items — and the state Legislature, while approving these additions, has not kept up with paying for them or covering numerous other costs.

Longer answer:

When the 1889 state constitution mandated that Washington had a duty to “make ample provision for the education of all children,” kids were sitting in one-room schoolhouses, and many considered their learning complete after eighth grade. (As late as 1910, only 10 percent of American teens even attended high school.)

Education has changed radically since then. But funding has not kept pace.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Robert Doran ruled in 1977 that the state must fully fund “basic education,” and after the state Supreme Court upheld that decision, two laws resulted: Washington’s Basic Education Act, which defined what “basic” meant; and the Levy Lid Act, which aimed to keep money relatively equal district-to-district and for that reason limited what schools could collect from local taxpayers.

Up to that point, locals had covered up to 30 percent of schools’ operating costs. After the Levy Lid, those contributions dropped to about 8 percent and the state’s share increased. (It was supposed to remain under 10 percent, with a few districts allowed special permission to collect at slightly higher levels.)

But over the years, the Legislature has continually raised its levy caps (the law was tweaked 12 times between 1980 and 1998), shifting more of the load back to local taxpayers, even as standards for basic education expanded.

Today, districts can raise up to 24 percent of their state and federal allocations from local sources (with a few permitted to go higher). Those dollars are technically supposed to go for “extras,” but districts have been using that money to pay for basics like heat, supplies, transportation and teacher salaries. According to a recently released audit, local taxpayers now cover about $14,000 of each teacher’s pay — nearly 25 percent of the average salary — and they fund nearly half of administrators’ pay, or about $50,450 per principal.

The much-discussed McCleary school-funding lawsuit, filed in 2007, makes complaints similar to those in the 1976 Seattle case from 31 years before.

As state Sen. Reuven Carlyle recently observed: “Nothing, over 40 years of legal battles where the state has been consistently told to address the inadequate and inequitable system, has really changed.”