Basic Education Defined

Basic Education Defined


“It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.”

— Article IX, Section 1 Washington State Constitution


What defines “basic education”?

Basic education has been defined by the State many times over the years, particularly in 2009 when they passed several bills, including HB 2261 and HB 2776. These bills define the basics of basic education. They apply only to Kindergarten through twelfth grade (K-12) and even though early learning and higher education are important, they are not included in the definition of basic education in Washington State. It is also important to note that the state does not fully fund even the things defined as basic education, and that definition does not include many things that parents and teachers would assume are "basic." For example, the state funds a nurse at each elementary school for only 1.5 days a week.

Based on these laws, the definition of “basic education” in Washington includes the following:1


Books, computers and other supplies

  • A full day of kindergarten (new in 2009; before that it was a half-day)
  • No more than 17 students per certificated staff member in grades K-3. (This is commonly referred to as “class size.” But it’s important to understand that the actual requirement is a ratio of students to all certificated instructional staff, which includes teachers, librarians, counselors, health services staff and others.)
  • A district-wide average of 1,080 hours of instruction for each school year for high school students, and at least 1,000 hours for grades K-8
  • At least 180 days of school each year
  • The opportunity to earn 24 credits to earn a high-school diploma.
  • Bus transportation for students who live more than one to two miles from school, depending on the grade level
  • Qualified teachers paid a competitive salary
  • Other qualified school staff — like librarians, counselors, custodians, security guards, principals — paid a competitive salary
  • A central office staff that supports schools
  • Special education to help students with disabilities
  • Bilingual program for students who need help learning English
  • Remedial education for students who fall behind
  • An accelerated or enriched learning program for students who qualify. These are often referred to as highly capable programs.
  • An educational program for students who are in a juvenile-detention center, a state institution or a residential school


In 2012, the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the McCleary case that state government had failed its paramount constitutional duty to fully fund basic education. The ruling also clarified what “ample” support for basic education means.  The following is a good summary from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).2 The italicized quotes are quotes from the ruling.

The word “ample” in article IX, section 1 provides a broad constitutional guideline meaning fully, sufficient, and considerably more than just adequate (p 3).

“Basic education” means whatever is necessary to give students the opportunity to master the state’s four learning goals and the Essential Academic Learning Requirements:

The “education” required under article IX, section 1 consists of the opportunity to obtain the knowledge and skills described in Seattle School District, ESHB 1209, and the EALRs. It does not reflect a right to a guaranteed educational outcome.

It includes funding for overhead costs, such as transportation, and staff salaries and benefits:

If the State’s funding formulas provide only a portion of what it actually costs a school to pay its teachers, get kids to school, and keep the lights on, then the legislature cannot maintain that it is fully funding basic education through its funding formulas.

Relying on local levies or federal funding is unconstitutional because it is unstable and unfair

The fact that local levy funds have been at least in part supporting the basic education program is inescapable…..Reliance on levy funding to finance basic education was unconstitutional 30 years ago…. and it is unconstitutional now.

Similarly, we find it difficult to characterize federal funding of certain education programs as a “regular and dependable tax source,” … for purposes of satisfying the State’s obligation.

Lack of revenue does not justify failing to meet the paramount duty:

To ensure that the legislature exercises its authority within constitutionally prescribed bounds, any reduction of programs or offerings from the basic education program must be accompanied by an educational policy rationale. That is, the legislature may not eliminate an offering from the basic education program for reasons unrelated to educational policy, such as fiscal crisis or mere expediency.

The State is not meeting its paramount duty:

We affirm the trial court’s declaratory ruling and hold that the State has not complied with its article IX, section 1 duty to make ample provision for the education of all children in Washington.

Full implementation of the HB 2261 is the solution:

The legislature recently enacted a promising reform package under ESHB 2261, 61st Leg., Reg. Sess. (Wash. 2009), which if fully funded, will remedy deficiencies in the K-12 funding system.