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AGO 1979 No. 21 - December 18, 1979
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Slade Gorton | 1969-1980 | Attorney General of Washington

SCHOOLS ‑- ATTENDANCE ‑- NECESSITY FOR ATTENDANCE AT PUBLIC OR APPROVED PRIVATE SCHOOL

The term "private school," as used in RCW 28A.27.010 requiring attendance by children between prescribed ages at either the public school of the district in which the child resides or a "private school," still denotes an "approved private school" as defined in the last paragraph of the statute‑-notwithstanding the amendment contained in § 4, chapter 201, Laws of 1979, 1st Ex. Sess.

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                                                               December 18, 1979

Honorable John Panesko, Jr.
Prosecuting Attorney
Lewis County
P.O. Box 918
Chehalis, Washington 98532

                                                                                                                 Cite as:  AGO 1979 No. 21

Dear Sir:

            By letter previously acknowledged you requested the opinion of this office on a question which we paraphrase as follows:

            Does the term "private school" as used in the first paragraph of RCW 28A.27.010 still denote an "approved private school" as defined in the last paragraph of the statute‑-notwithstanding the legislature's recent repeal of the language "[p]roof of absence from any public or approved private and/or parochial school shall be prima facie evidence of a violation of this section"?

            We answer this question in the affirmative.

                                                                     ANALYSIS

            RCW 28A.27.010 contains what is commonly referred to as the state compulsory school attendance law.  That law,  [[Orig. Op. Page 2]] the current version of which originated as § 2, chapter 10, Laws of 1972, 1st Ex. Sess., was recently amended by § 4, chapter 201, Laws of 1979, 1st Ex. Sess. in the following respects:

            "All parents, guardians and the persons in this state having custody of any child eight years of age and under fifteen years of age shall cause such child to attend the public school of the district in which the child resides for the full time when such school may be in session or to attend a private school for the same time unless the school district superintendent of the district in which the child resides shall have excused such child from attendance because the child is physically or mentally unable to attend school or unless such child is attending a residential school operated by ((the division of institutions of)) the department of social and health services.

            "All parents, guardians and other persons in this state having custody of any child fifteen years of age and under eighteen years of age shall cause such child to attend the public school of the district in which the child resides for the full time when such school may be in session or to attend a private school for the same time excepting when the school district superintendent determines that such child is physically or mentally unable to attend school or has already attained a reasonable proficiency in the branches required by law to be taught in the first nine grades of the public schools of this state, or the child is regularly and lawfully engaged in a useful or remunerative occupation, or the child is attending a residential school operated by ((the division of institutions of)) the department of social and health services, or the child has already met graduation requirements in accordance with state board of education rules and regulations, or the child has  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] received a certificate of educational competence under rules and regulations published by the state board of education under RCW 28A.04.135.

            "((Proof of absence from any public or approved private and/or parochial school shall be prima facie evidence of a violation of this section.))  An approved private and/or parochial school for the purposes of this section shall be one approved under regulations established by the state board of education pursuant to RCW 28A.04.120 as now or hereafter amended."

            Your question is whether the term "private school," as used in the first (as well as the second) paragraph of the statute continues to denote only an "approved private school" as expressly defined in the final sentence of the law‑-notwithstanding the legislature's deletion of the immediately preceding sentence.  While we acknowledge the possibility of a somewhat mechanical argument to the contrary in view of the absence of the modifying word "approved" in the laws' first two references to "private school"‑-an omission which we would recommend be rectified by the legislature at its forthcoming 1980 session‑-we are, nevertheless, persuaded to respond in the affirmative.

            The function of approving private schools is vested in the State Board of Education by the following language of RCW 28A.04.120, referred to in the definition of "approved private school" in RCW 28A.27.010, supra:

            "In addition to any other powers and duties as proved by law, the state board of education shall:

            ". . .

            "(4) Examine and accredit secondary schools and approve, subject to the provisions of RCW 28A.02.201, private schools carrying out a program for any or all of the grades one through twelve:  PROVIDED, That no public or private high schools shall be placed upon the list of accredited schools so long as secret societies are knowingly allowed to exist among its students by school officials.

            ". . ."

             [[Orig. Op. Page 4]]

            RCW 28A.02.201, in turn, enumerates certain criteria to be applied in the approval process in order to insure that private schools ". . . should be subject only to those minimum state controls necessary to insure the health and safety of all students in the state and to insure a sufficient basic education to meet usual graduation requirements. . . ."

            Clearly, the term "private school" as used in the first two paragraphs of RCW 28A.27.010prior to its amendment by the 1979 legislature meant only an "approved private and/or parochial school" as defined in the last sentence of the statute.  That, it seems to us, was necessarily so since proof of absence, either from a public school or from such an "approved" private and/or parochial school, was said to constitute prima facie evidence of a violation of the compulsory attendance law.  Accord, State ex rel. Shoreline School Dist. No. 412 v. Superior Court, 55 Wn.2d 177, 183, 346 P.2d 999 (1959); Cf.,State v. Counort, 69 Wash. 361, 124 Pac. 910 (1912).  The question to be asked, therefore, is whether it is reasonable to conclude that the legislature intended to change the meaning of the term "private school" by its deletion of the "proof of absence" sentence which was removed from the statute by § 4, chapter 201,supra.  We think not.

            In the first place, had that truly been the intent of the legislature, it seemingly would have also deleted the ensuing sentence defining the term "approved private and/or parochial school."  For if the term "private school," as used earlier in the statute, was no longer intended by the legislature to be restricted to a private and/or parochial school approved by the State Board of Education under RCW 28A.04.120, supra, that retained definitional sentence would now be surplusage.  Yet it is a fundamental principle of statutory construction that wherever possible a statute is to be construed so that no portion of it is superfluous or insignificant.  Gross v. City of Lynnwood, 90 Wn.2d 395, 583 P.2d 1197 (1978) and cases cited therein.

            Secondly, and of at least equal importance, is the fact that another‑-considerably more plausible‑-explanation of the pertinent 1979 amendment is available.  Therefore, our interpretation of the statute as amended, answering your question in the affirmative, does not mean that the legislature's deletion of the "proof of absence" sentence was a vain and useless act‑-a characterization which would be contrary to another well-established rule of statutory construction.  See,State v. Wanrow, 88 Wn.2d 221, 559 P.2d 548 (1977) and cases cited.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 5]]

            The deleted language formerly provided that "proof of absence from any public or approved private and/or parochial school shall be prima facie evidence of a violation of this section."  One of the major effects of chapter 201, Laws of 1979, 1st Ex. Sess., supra, however, was to establish a defense of "reasonable diligence" in the case of a parent or guardian charged with a violation.  See, § 6, chapter 201,supra, amending RCW 28A.27.100 to read as follows:

            "Any person violating any of the provisions of either RCW 28A.27.010 or 28A.27.090 shall be fined not more than twenty-five dollars for each day of unexcused absence from school.  It shall be a defense for a person charged with violating RCW 28A.27.010 to show that he or she exercised reasonable diligence in attempting to cause a child in his or her custody to attend school or that the juvenile's school did not perform its duties as required in section one of this act.  Any fine imposed pursuant to this section may be suspended upon the condition that a person charged with violating RCW 28A.27.010 shall participate with the school and the juvenile in a supervised plan for the juvenile's attendance at school or upon condition that the person attend a conference or conferences scheduled by a school for the purpose of analyzing the causes of a child's absence.

            "Attendance officers shall make complaint for violation of the provisions of RCW 28A.27.010 through 28A.27.130 by any person eighteen years of age or over to a justice of the peace, justice court judge or to a judge of the superior court."1/

                         [[Orig. Op. Page 6]]

            Thus, the parental duty to cause a child to attend school is no longer an absolute duty as it once was; and, accordingly, absence alone was appropriately deemed by the legislature no longer to constitute prima facie evidence of a violation.

            Finally, it is also a basic principle that the words of a statute are not to be read in isolation but, instead, derive their meaning from the overall context in which appear.  Champion v. Shoreline School Dist. No. 412, 81 Wn.2d 672, 504 P.2d 304 (1972) and cases cited.  Here, in our opinion, the proper means of interpreting the term "private school" as used in the first (and second) sentence of RCW 28A.27.010, supra, is to construe it in the context in which it appears as an alternative to a "public school."  Accord,State ex rel. Shoreline School Dist. No. 412 v. Superior Court, supra, and State v. Counort,supra, wherein, in both instances, our court has construed the term "private school" (for the purposes of the compulsory attendance law) as meaning a learning institution which meets certain minimum standards established for "schools" in general.  It now seems clearly established by the legislature that it is its intent that private schools comply with the minimum standards set forth in RCW 28A.02.201,supra (referred to in the above‑quoted segment of RCW 28A.04.120), relating to the approval of private schools by the State Board of Education.  Therefore, it readily follows that the directive in RCW 28A.27.010, supra, that a child of compulsory school age attend either a public school or a "private school" should be taken to manifest a legislative intent that a private school to which a parent or guardian elects to send a child of compulsory age be one which meets the standards thus established by the legislature.

            We trust that the foregoing will be of assistance to you.

Very truly yours,


SLADE GORTON
Attorney General


ROBERT E. PATTERSON
Assistant Attorney General


THOMAS L. ANDERSON
Assistant Attorney General

                                                         ***   FOOTNOTES   ***

1/See also, § 3 of chapter 201, supra, which amends the Juvenile Justice Act to provide that evidence of a parent or guardian's failure to take "reasonable steps" to see that his/her ward attends school may be considered in a neglect proceeding.

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