Visualization of NPI's March 2023 K-12 school funding poll finding
Visualization of NPI's March 2023 K-12 school funding poll finding (NPI graphic)

Majori­ties of like­ly 2024 Wash­ing­ton vot­ers agree that the state’s schools are under­fund­ed and con­cur that the Leg­is­la­ture has a respon­si­bil­i­ty to sub­stan­tial­ly increase school fund­ing this ses­sion to pre­vent school clo­sures and staff lay­offs, the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute’s most recent statewide sur­vey has found.

55% of 874 vot­ers inter­viewed from March 7th-8th said they agreed that Wash­ing­ton’s pub­lic schools are under­fund­ed and we need to raise state rev­enue to ful­ly fund them, while 35% dis­agreed and 10% were not sure.

59% of those sur­veyed sub­se­quent­ly said they agreed that the Leg­is­la­ture has an oblig­a­tion to respond to the fis­cal crises dis­tricts are cur­rent­ly fac­ing by sub­stan­tial­ly increas­ing school fund­ing this ses­sion to pre­vent school clo­sures and staff lay­offs. 36% dis­agreed and 5% said that they were not sure.

The Wash­ing­ton State Con­sti­tu­tion declares that it is the state’s “para­mount duty” to “amply pro­vide” for the edu­ca­tion of all youth resid­ing with­in its borders.

These find­ings demon­strate that vot­ers con­tin­ue to under­stand this oblig­a­tion and expect their elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives to as well. Yet the bud­gets cur­rent­ly under con­sid­er­a­tion in Wash­ing­ton’s state­house fall far short of amply pro­vid­ing for our schools, which con­tin­ue to grap­ple with the fall­out from the COVID-19 pandemic.

With no help on the hori­zon, dis­tricts are prepar­ing to make deep cuts.

Like Belle­vue:

The Belle­vue School Board has vot­ed to con­sol­i­date two ele­men­tary schools, which is a mod­i­fied rec­om­men­da­tion in respect to the dis­tric­t’s ear­li­er plans of con­sol­i­da­tion. Three board mem­bers vot­ed yes and two abstained.

Ear­li­er this year, the dis­trict pro­posed con­sol­i­dat­ing three ele­men­tary schools to save costs due to low enroll­ment, a trend expect­ed to con­tin­ue. The dis­trict is also faced with a $31 mil­lion short­fall for next year’s budget.

“In Octo­ber 2022 it became clear that enroll­ment would not go back to pre-pan­dem­ic lev­els, as a result of low­er birth rates, high­er hous­ing costs, more edu­ca­tion­al options for fam­i­lies includ­ing pri­vate schools, low­er immi­gra­tion lev­els, and fam­i­lies mov­ing to more afford­able areas. The impact of the drop in enroll­ment will hit the district’s finan­cial posi­tion in the 2023–2024 school year. The mag­ni­tude of the sit­u­a­tion serves as the ratio­nale behind con­sol­i­da­tion con­sid­er­a­tions,” inter­im super­in­ten­dent Dr. Art Jarvis wrote on the dis­tric­t’s web­site on March 8th.

Or Seat­tle:

Dur­ing a bud­get work ses­sion Tues­day night [Feb­ru­ary 28th], Seat­tle Pub­lic Schools announced some staff has been noti­fied they may lose their jobs while address­ing a crit­i­cal bud­get deficit.

Accord­ing to the dis­trict, its “struc­tur­al deficit” has grown to $131 mil­lion. The fis­cal year 2022–23 SPS bud­get is based on $82 mil­lion of one-time funding.

“This week…we’ve issued some noti­fi­ca­tions to employ­ees about they’re being con­sid­ered for ‘RIF’ and dis­place­ment so that is hap­pen­ing,” said Dr. Brent Jones, SPS superintendent.

“We’re in that phase right now.”

The dis­trict said the pro­ject­ed deficit was caused by a num­ber of fac­tors, includ­ing the expi­ra­tion of one-time state and fed­er­al resources from the Ele­men­tary and Sec­ondary School Emer­gency Relief Fund (ESSER).

Or Olympia:

The Olympia School Dis­trict joins with sev­er­al dis­tricts across the state, forced to make bud­get cuts for the upcom­ing school year.

Olympia schools are fac­ing an esti­mat­ed $11.5 mil­lion short­fall. School board mem­bers say that dif­fi­cult cuts are ahead.

Some of the cuts include reduc­ing the para-edu­ca­tor staff by 26%, increas­ing class sizes for all stu­dents, and elim­i­nat­ing art teach­ers at each ele­men­tary school.

“I’m wor­ried for my kids’ edu­ca­tion,” says Romeo, an Olympia parent.

Par­ent, Sara, agrees. “It’s nerve-wrack­ing when you hear about it for our kids.”

Oth­er pro­posed cuts include reduc­ing bus routes and bus mon­i­tors, elim­i­nat­ing sev­er­al social work­ers, and pos­si­bly elim­i­nat­ing mid­dle school sports.

These cuts will have neg­a­tive ram­i­fi­ca­tions for every­one: stu­dents, par­ents, teach­ers, edu­ca­tion sup­port pro­fes­sion­als, and the wider community.

But they will nev­er­the­less be imposed if Wash­ing­ton’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic-run Leg­is­la­ture does not change course in the next few days. 

Because of how Wash­ing­ton’s sys­tem of com­mon schools is struc­tured, with gov­er­nance large­ly decen­tral­ized across 295 school dis­tricts, it’s easy to fall into the trap as a state elect­ed offi­cial of think­ing that school fund­ing is pri­mar­i­ly a local mat­ter, espe­cial­ly giv­en dis­tricts’ author­i­ty to set their own budgets.

But the Con­sti­tu­tion is crys­tal clear: it’s not only a state respon­si­bil­i­ty, it’s the state’s most impor­tant respon­si­bil­i­ty. Its para­mount duty, as mentioned.

The Leg­is­la­ture has a long and sor­ry his­to­ry of fail­ing to car­ry out the state’s sacred Arti­cle IX respon­si­bil­i­ty. That dere­lic­tion of duty is what led to the land­mark McCleary law­suit, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the Leg­is­la­ture was fail­ing Wash­ing­ton’s kids. For sev­er­al years, the Leg­is­la­ture pret­ty much ignored the Court’s rul­ing, caus­ing the jus­tices to hold the state in con­tempt.

Final­ly, dur­ing the 2017 ses­sion — the most recent year in which Repub­li­cans con­trolled the Sen­ate — leg­is­la­tors adopt­ed a so-called “McCleary fix” which belat­ed­ly addressed some of the long­stand­ing prob­lems with school fund­ing in Wash­ing­ton — but def­i­nite­ly not all. The exec­u­tive and leg­isla­tive branch­es then urged the Supreme Court to dis­pose of the McCleary case, which it did in 2018.

Wash­ing­ton’s school fund­ing issues have sad­ly persisted.

Though the Leg­is­la­ture has com­mend­ably levied a cap­i­tal gains tax on the wealthy to direct addi­tion­al fund­ing to the Edu­ca­tion Lega­cy Trust (an act the Supreme Court just upheld), it has not giv­en our K‑12 pub­lic schools the resources they need to ful­fill the state’s oblig­a­tions to its youngest residents.

This is true not just in terms of oper­at­ing sup­port, but cap­i­tal invest­ments, too. One of Wash­ing­ton’s tiny rur­al school dis­tricts, Wahki­akum, is suing the state, in what is some­thing of a sequel to McCleary. The dis­trict con­tends it should­n’t be forced to come up with the funds to mod­ern­ize its facil­i­ties on its own.

At reg­u­lar inter­vals through­out the past sev­en years, NPI has been ask­ing vot­ers in Wash­ing­ton how they feel about school fund­ing, and we have always found a major­i­ty in agree­ment that our schools are under­fund­ed and that state rev­enue ought to be increased to ful­ly fund them, even after the “McCleary fix.” Here’s our ques­tion, the most recent respons­es, and the respons­es going back to 2016:

QUESTION: Do you strong­ly agree, some­what agree, some­what dis­agree, or strong­ly dis­agree with the fol­low­ing state­ment: Wash­ing­ton’s pub­lic schools are under­fund­ed, and we need to raise state rev­enue to ful­ly fund them?


  • Agree: 55%
    • Strong­ly agree: 38%
    • Some­what agree: 17%
  • Dis­agree: 35% 
    • Some­what dis­agree: 13%
    • Strong­ly dis­agree: 22%
  • Not sure: 10%


Ask­ing the exact same ques­tion about school fund­ing in our polls allows us to track pub­lic sen­ti­ment over time, but does­n’t allow us to offer up-to-date con­text, which is why we also posed this ques­tion to our respondents:

QUESTION: School dis­tricts across Wash­ing­ton say that they are fac­ing fis­cal crises due to declin­ing enroll­ment, fall­out from the pan­dem­ic, and the state’s ongo­ing fail­ure to amply fund the edu­ca­tion of all youth, even after the dis­po­si­tion of the McCleary court case. Dis­tricts like Belle­vue and Seat­tle are look­ing at clos­ing schools or lay­ing off staff to address loom­ing bud­get short­falls. Do you strong­ly agree, some­what agree, some­what dis­agree, or strong­ly dis­agree that the Leg­is­la­ture has a respon­si­bil­i­ty to sub­stan­tial­ly increase school fund­ing this ses­sion to pre­vent school clo­sures and staff layoffs?


  • Agree: 59%
    • Strong­ly agree: 42%
    • Some­what agree: 17%
  • Dis­agree: 36% 
    • Some­what dis­agree: 12%
    • Strong­ly dis­agree: 24%
  • Not sure: 5%

Our sur­vey of 874 like­ly 2024 Wash­ing­ton State vot­ers was in the field from Tues­day, March 7th through Wednes­day, March 8th, 2023.

The poll uti­lizes a blend­ed method­ol­o­gy, with auto­mat­ed phone calls to land­lines (50%) and online answers from cell phone only respon­dents (50%).

It was con­duct­ed by Pub­lic Pol­i­cy Polling for the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute, and has a mar­gin of error of +/- 3.3% at the 95% con­fi­dence interval.

Last ses­sion, after NPI unveiled polling that showed that vot­ers con­sid­er upgrad­ing our seis­mi­cal­ly vul­ner­a­ble school build­ings to be a state respon­si­bil­i­ty, the Leg­is­la­ture unan­i­mous­ly passed a school seis­mic safe­ty grant pro­gram and pro­vid­ed a mod­est chunk of fund­ing in the cap­i­tal bud­get to sup­port it.

It was only a first step, but it nev­er­the­less rep­re­sent­ed impor­tant progress.

This year’s cap­i­tal bud­get — which is not yet final but is mov­ing along in the leg­isla­tive process — some­how has few­er dol­lars for the school seis­mic safe­ty grant pro­gram than last year’s. Cou­pled with the insuf­fi­cient lev­els of fund­ing for dis­tricts in the oper­at­ing bud­get, we are on the verge of going back­wards on school fund­ing in Wash­ing­ton State. That’s not what Wash­ing­to­ni­ans want.

Vot­ers last year sent a mes­sage to Demo­c­ra­t­ic leg­isla­tive lead­ers, sev­er­al of whom had pub­licly fret­ted about los­ing seats amidst the Repub­li­cans’ “red wave” nar­ra­tive: we like what you’re doing and we want you to do more.

That’s why they sent larg­er — yes, larg­er — Demo­c­ra­t­ic majori­ties to Olympia in a year when Repub­li­cans had delu­sions of repeat­ing 1994 and win­ning majori­ties in both cham­bers. Our research, which antic­i­pat­ed a strong Demo­c­ra­t­ic show­ing in leg­isla­tive races, now finds that big majori­ties sup­port a wealth tax on huge for­tunes and a ful­ly fund­ed uni­ver­sal, no-cost school meals pro­gram, as well as the sub­stan­tial increase for K‑12 schools dis­cussed above.

Right now, the Leg­is­la­ture seems on the verge of fail­ing to deliv­er any of that.

There’s still an oppor­tu­ni­ty for lead­er­ship. The ses­sion isn’t over yet and the bud­gets are not final. Our team implores the Leg­is­la­ture to lis­ten to the vot­ers. Don’t Sine Die and go home with­out tak­ing care of Wash­ing­ton’s kids. Don’t force aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures on Wash­ing­ton’s K‑12 schools. Instead, work togeth­er to make the invest­ments that our youth and their fam­i­lies need to suc­ceed and thrive.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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