The Case for School Funding—Again

Seattle attorney Thomas Ahearne wants all Washington schools to get equal construction money

Super Lawyers online-exclusive

By Beth Taylor on April 4, 2023


A small school district perched on the Columbia River in southwest Washington is suing the state for money to repair and rebuild the three crumbling schools attended by its 433 students.

Ongoing School Funding Issues

“The Wahkiakum School District is too poor to afford the school facilities needed to safely provide its students the 21st century education they will need to compete in today’s economy,” says Thomas Ahearne, the Seattle attorney who agreed to take on the district’s case.

It’s not Ahearne’s first battle for statewide school funding. His multiyear fight for academic funding ended in 2018 with the state Supreme Court ordering lawmakers to spend billions to equalize the funding of academics among school districts across the state. In McCleary v. Washington, Ahearne argued that the state’s constitution guarantees funding for education.

“Our state constitution tells those kids that ‘It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders’,” Ahearne says. “Not just the lucky kids living in our wealthier zip codes.”

The Opposing Side

The state argues that McCleary was only about academics and maintains that construction costs are still the responsibility of school districts. For two decades, Wahkiakum School District has tried unsuccessfully to get local voters to approve a school bond for the badly needed work. Bonds required 60% voter approval to pass. Wahkiakum’s high school, according to The Seattle Times, has not had a major remodel since it was built in 1962.

If the suit succeeds, it could overhaul the way Washington state school districts fund school construction and repairs. Currently, the state matches part of the funding each school district makes through bonds for construction costs. But if a district can’t get a bond passed, there are few options left for construction funding.

In the Court’s Hands

If you ask Ahearne, the McCleary ruling should apply to construction as well as academics. “Comparing what our state constitution and Supreme Court have said to Wahkiakum’s kids on the one hand,” he says, “to, on the other hand, what the state’s refusal to fund their needed education facilities does to those kids highlights a quote I have buried in my mind from high school: ‘I cannot hear the words you say over the thunder of what you do.’ It’s now up to the nine Washington Supreme Court justices to decide if state thunder or constitutional promises prevail in this poor rural school district.”

The state Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling in the case sometime this year.

Read our feature story about Ahearne, “Paramount Duty,” as featured in the 2012 Washington Super Lawyers Magazine.

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