Is Education Spending Constitutionally Protected?

Jun 15, 2020

On June 11th, State Superintendent Chris Reykdal held a press conference in which he asserted that  education spending is protected by the McCleary ruling. (At 36:17)

Is this statement true?

It is not. The McCleary school funding case decided by the state supreme court in 2012 held that it is the legislature’s constitutional duty to define and fund the program of education. The court ruled that the legislature’s spending on education is not “etched in constitutional stone.” The court said the legislature is obligated to review and change the education program “as the needs of students and society evolve.”

This means that the legislature can change the program of education for children whenever it wants. Reductions to programs are permissible if accompanied by “an educational policy rationale.”

This means that the legislature can expand, maintain or reduce education services to improve the quality of education that children in Washington state receive. 

The legislature has many policy rationales to change the way money is spent in public education. These education reasons include low graduation rates and a growing academic achievement gap between white and minority students.

Washington state has identified 118 failing schools, politely called “Priority” schools by state education officials. These schools have a disproportionate impact on children of color.  The 44,000 students that administrators send to “Priority” schools are most at risk of dropping out of school. Part of the blame for these failures is a heavily bureaucratic system of schools which during the 2019-20 school year spent $17 billion, but delivered only 60 cents of every dollar to school classrooms.   

The legislature could improve the quality of education students receive by expanding access to public charter and public online schools, which deliver quality education programs for less money. The legislature could also offer parents scholarships to send their children to private schools and to receive tutoring, another way to achieve savings while providing families quality education options.

The legislature has many education policy justifications for changing the way money is spent to benefit students. The McCleary case ruled that it is the legislature’s solemn constitutional duty to define and fund the program of education, and to make changes to that program whenever students and society need them.