Nearly every state’s constitution includes a right to a free, basic education for all children. But what exactly do states owe every student?
That question is far from settled. Case in point: A school district in rural Washington state recently argued before the state’s highest court that a constitutional commitment to education includes adequate funding from the state for school building improvements. The court didn’t quite agree.
This case might seem like a one-off local example of confusing technicalities in school finance. But it’s part of a longstanding and ongoing tradition of using the byzantine American judicial system to shape school funding. And the verdict has implications that could reverberate well beyond Washington state.
The 400-student Wahkiakum school district on the state’s southwestern tip sued the state in 2021, arguing that it owes local school districts in low-wealth areas more financial support to keep their buildings safe and modern. But on Sept. 7, the Washington Supreme Court issued a unanimous verdict that sidestepped the district’s question. The court simply rejected the notion that the state bears sole responsibility for school facilities improvements.
The verdict was disappointing for Tom Ahearne, the lead lawyer representing the school district. He believes judges ignored the plaintiff’s argument that the state bears some responsibility for school facilities funding, not necessarily all of it.
“What all nine of them agreed to do is not answer the question that was asked, answer a different question, and then let the legislature do something,” Ahearne told Education Week.
The details of the case in Washington state are emblematic of the much larger national problem of suboptimal school facilities, especially in lower-income communities without robust local property tax revenue.
Why do some school districts struggle to fund building improvements?
School districts fund facilities projects like roof and HVAC system replacements, building additions, and new facilities, with “capital funds,” which are separate from everyday operating expenses for things like salaries and instructional materials. To fund these sizable and multi-step projects, districts often turn to voters to approve bonds that districts can pay back with interest over a number of years.
But many districts struggle to raise enough money from local taxpayers to cover the cost of facilities projects, which often amount to tens of millions of dollars for a single building.
In 2021, only seven states supplied more than 50 percent of funds for school building projects, according to the State of Our Schools report from that year from the International Well Building Institute and a coalition of school facilities advocates. Fourteen states left facilities funding entirely in the hands of local districts. Another seven states only chipped in between zero and 10 percent of construction costs.
Overall, local funding in 2021 accounted for 77 percent of spending on school facilities construction, according to the report.
In a handful of states, including Washington and Idaho, voting laws also make school building improvements tougher to fund through borrowing. To get a bond approved, districts have to get 60 percent of voters to support it, rather than a simple majority.
“When you have a supermajority, the minority determines if your bond is going to get passed,” said Jim Kowalkowski, director of the Rural Education Center, an organization that advocates for Washington’s rural districts from within Washington State University’s College of Education.
How bad are school building conditions in places with low property tax revenue?
The Wahkiakum district has three school buildings: two built in the 1950s, and one from the early 1990s. The district has publicly shared instances of flooding bathrooms, freezing classrooms, and inadequate equipment for science lessons.
Voters there last approved a construction bond more than two decades ago.
The Wahkiakum district’s experience is far from unique:
- A North Carolina school district recently postponed by two weeks the start of the school year to deal with mold in many of its buildings.
- A public elementary school in New Hampshire shut down permanently because walls had become displaced, and the building was no longer safe to occupy.
- Numerous Philadelphia schools have shut down in recent months due to asbestos.
- Several school buildings in Connecticut recently saw massive floods and standing water that came through ceiling and window leaks, malfunctioning drainage systems, and window cracks.
The nation’s schools collectively need tens of billions of dollars to ensure they’re safe and modern.
“Every different measurement you can possibly think of for building quality—air quality, building age, spending—is all disproportionately negatively impacting higher-poverty communities,” said David Knight, an associate professor of education finance and policy at the University of Washington College of Education.
What did the district in Washington state hope a lawsuit would accomplish?
The Wahkiakum district hoped to convince the state that it’s constitutionally obligated to supply enough funds for districts to pay for essential building needs. “Enhancements,” or additional building features beyond what’s standard, would still be covered by local funds, the district argued in the legal complaint.
The state Supreme Court acknowledged that building conditions in Wahkiakum, and likely many other districts, are inadequate. But it punted on the question of whether the state bears some responsibility for ensuring that’s not the case.
However, that’s a question courts in other states could take up. Education advocates often look to recent verdicts in other states to shape legal strategies for their own cases, Knight said.
Ahearne is no stranger to such efforts. He was heavily involved in the McCleary court case in Washington state that successfully yielded major school funding increases in the mid-2000s.
The Wahkiakum case is over for now, though lawyers could revive the issue if the state passes any sort of new law providing funding support for school facilities improvements. And Ahearne believes there’s a strong case to be made that failing to adequately fund school buildings violates state and federal constitutional clauses around equal protection under the law.
“That’s a battle for future days,” he said.