EDUCATION—SCHOOLS—Definition Of “School Days”
Days devoted entirely to teacher/parent-guardian conferences in public schools likely count toward the statutory minimum of 180 school days required by RCW 28A.150.220.
February 16, 2018
Dear Chair Muñoz-Colón:
By letter previously acknowledged, you have requested our opinion on the following paraphrased question:
Can a school district count a full scheduled day of teacher/parent-guardian conferences as one of the 180 school days required by RCW 28A.150.220(5)(a), or must it request a waiver under RCW 28A.305.140?
Days devoted entirely to teacher/parent-guardian conferences likely count toward the statutory minimum of 180 school days required by RCW 28A.150.220(5)(a). Thus a waiver would not be required.
RCW 28A.150.220 provides the minimum requirements of the statewide instructional program of basic education that school districts must offer. Each school year must consist of a minimum of 180 “school days.” RCW 28A.150.220(5)(a). School districts also must provide at least 1,000 annual “instructional hours” to kindergarteners through eighth graders, and at least 1,080 annual “instructional hours” to ninth through twelfth graders. RCW 28A.150.220(2)(a), (b).
“School year” is defined as “the minimum number of school days required under RCW 28A.150.220 and begins on the first day of September and ends with the last day of August . . . .” RCW 28A.150.203(11). A “school day” is defined as “each day of the school year on which pupils enrolled in the common schools of a school district are engaged in academic and
[original page 2]
career and technical instruction planned by and under the direction of the school.” RCW 28A.150.203(10).
“Instructional hours” is defined in a separate statute as “those hours students are provided the opportunity to engage in educational activity planned by and under the direction of school district staff, as directed by the administration and board of directors of the district, inclusive of intermissions for class changes, recess, and teacher/parent-guardian conferences that are planned and scheduled by the district for the purpose of discussing students’ educational needs or progress, and exclusive of time actually spent for meals.” RCW 28A.150.205 (emphases added).
Under these definitions, school districts must hold at least 180 school days and provide the minimum required instructional hours between September 1 and August 30 of the following year. While teacher/parent-guardian conferences are expressly included in the definition of “instructional hours,” and thus clearly count toward that requirement, the conferences are not explicitly included in the definition of a “school day.” Thus a question persists about whether days scheduled in their entirety for teacher/parent-guardian conferences fall within the definition of a “school day” and count toward the 180 “school day” requirement.
The State Board of Education has operated under the view that a day devoted entirely to teacher/parent-guardian conferences likely does not count as a “school day.” This is because not all students in the district are engaged in “academic and career and technical” instruction on those days. RCW 28A.150.203(10) (definition of school day). However, the Board is authorized to grant districts waivers of the 180 school day requirement. Thus, exercising its statutory waiver authority, the Board adopted a rule in 2012 establishing an expedited procedure for districts to request waivers of up to five school days for the sole purpose of conducting full-day teacher/parent-guardian conferences. WAC 180-18-050(3).
This background and these relevant provisions of RCW Title 28A provide the backdrop against which we analyze your question.
We conclude that a Washington court would likely find that a day devoted entirely to teacher/parent-guardian conferences amounts to a “school day” and thus counts toward the statutory minimum requirement of 180 school days per school year. Therefore, no waiver would be necessary. As we describe in the analysis below, however, there are arguments to the contrary. Because a court might conclude that the statute is ambiguous, the State Board of Education may
[original page 3]
wish to issue a rule interpreting the statutes to clarify this point. RCW 28A.150.220(7) (“The state board of education shall adopt rules to implement and ensure compliance with the program requirements imposed by this section . . . .”). Such a rule would be entitled to deference in the courts and would help solidify the certainty of this conclusion. Port of Seattle v. Pollution Control Hr’gs Bd., 151 Wn.2d 568, 587, 90 P.3d 659 (2004) (“if an ambiguous statute falls within the agency’s expertise, the agency’s interpretation of the statute is ‘accorded great weight, provided it does not conflict with the statute’”) (quoting Pub. Util. Dist. 1 v. Dep’t of Ecology, 146 Wn.2d 778, 790, 51 P.3d 744 (2002)). Alternatively, the Board could consider seeking legislative clarification of this point.
Our objective in construing a statute is to determine the legislature’s intent. Darkenwald v. Emp’t Sec. Dep’t, 183 Wn.2d 237, 244-45, 350 P.3d 647 (2015). This analysis begins with the plain meaning of the statute, which encompasses “the text of the provision, the context of the statute in which the provision is found, related provisions, amendments to the provision, and the statutory scheme as a whole.” State ex rel. Banks v. Drummond, 187 Wn.2d 157, 170, 385 P.3d 769 (2016). “Where the statutory language is unambiguous, we accept that the legislature means exactly what it says.” State v. Marohl, 170 Wn.2d 691, 698, 246 P.3d 177 (2010). But if, after considering this plain language analysis, “the statute remains ambiguous or unclear, it is appropriate to resort to canons of construction and legislative history.” Banks, 187 Wn.2d at 170. “A statute is ambiguous when it is susceptible to two or more reasonable interpretations, but a statute is not ambiguous merely because different interpretations are conceivable.” State v. Gray, 174 Wn.2d 920, 927, 280 P.3d 1110 (2012) (internal quotation marks omitted).
The plain language of RCW 28A.150.203(10), in the context of related statutes, indicates that a full day devoted entirely to teacher/parent-guardian conferences counts as a “school day.” This conclusion finds additional support in the history of statutory amendments to the relevant statutes.
Plain Language and Statutory Context
A “school day” is defined as “each day of the school year on which pupils enrolled in the common schools of a school district are engaged in academic and career and technical instruction planned by and under the direction of the school.” RCW 28A.150.203(10) (emphasis added). This definition does not explicitly mention teacher/parent-guardian conferences, but it also does not mention any specific examples of activities that count as “academic and career and technical instruction,” so the omission of teacher/parent-guardian conferences does not tell us very much.
The key question is whether a day devoted entirely to teacher/parent-guardian conferences would count as a day “on which pupils . . . are engaged in academic and career and technical instruction[.]” RCW 28A.150.203(10). RCW Title 28A never defines either “academic and career and technical instruction” or simply “instruction.” But the next sequential statute after RCW 28A.150.203 defines “instructional hours” as “those hours students are provided the opportunity to engage in educational activity planned by and under the direction of school district
[original page 4]
staff, as directed by the administration and board of directors of the district, inclusive of intermissions for class changes, recess, and teacher/parent-guardian conferences that are planned and scheduled by the district for the purpose of discussing students’ educational needs or progress, and exclusive of time actually spent for meals.” RCW 28A.150.205 (emphases added). Thus, while the statutes never define “instruction,” they do define “instructional hours,” and it would be odd if what the legislature defined as “instructional hours” did not count as “instruction.” See Banks, 187 Wn.2d at 170 (analysis of a statute’s meaning must consider related statutes). Because the legislature has defined teacher/parent-guardian conferences as “instructional hours,” we think the best reading of the statutes is that the conferences qualify as “instruction” within the meaning of RCW 28A.150.203(10), and thus that days spent on teacher/parent-guardian conferences count as “school days” under RCW 28A.150.220(5)(a).
History of the Statutory Amendments
The history of the amendments to the statutes defining school days and instructional hours supports this interpretation. From 1909 until 1971, “school day” was defined temporally and consisted of “six hours for all pupils above the primary grades” and “not less than four hours” for pupils in the primary grades. Laws of 1909, ch. 97, tit. 3, ch. 1, § 3. In 1971, the legislature changed the meaning of “school day” to “each day of the school year on which pupils enrolled in the common schools of a school district are engaged in educational activity planned by and under the direction of the school district staff, as directed by the administration and board of directors of the district.” Laws of 1971, 1st Ex. Sess., ch. 161, § 1 (emphasis added). Since 1971, “school day” has not been defined in terms of a number of hours, or any sort of length of time.
The Washington Basic Education Act of 1977 further established minimum educational requirements. Laws of 1977, 1st Ex. Sess., ch. 359. It established an annual “total program hour offering,” rather than an “instructional hour” requirement, in terms of hours by grade grouping. It defined “total program hour offering” similarly to how “instructional hours” is now defined: “those hours when students are provided the opportunity to engage in educational activity planned by and under the direction of school district staff, as directed by the administration and board of directors of the district, inclusive of intermissions for class changes and recess and exclusive of intermission for meals.” Laws of 1977, 1st Ex. Sess., ch. 359, § 3(1)(a). The Washington Basic Education Act of 1977 also established the minimum school day requirement of 180 days. Laws of 1977, 1st Ex. Sess., ch. 359, § 3(e).
In 1992, the legislature changed the term “program offering” to “instructional hour offering,” required a district-wide annual average instructional hour offering of 1,000 hours, and added a definition of “instructional hours.” Laws of 1992, ch. 141, § 502. The definition of “instructional hours” was the same as the definition of “total program hour offering,” but it
[original page 5]
specifically provided that instructional hours included teacher/parent-guardian conferences. Laws of 1992, ch. 141, § 302(4). This definition remains unchanged.
Finally, in 2009, the legislature repealed the former definition of “school day,” which had not been amended since 1971, and enacted the current definition, which became effective on September 1, 2011. Laws of 2009, ch. 548, §§ 102(10), 804. The notable change in the definition of “school day” from the previous 1971 version is that “academic and career and technical instruction” was substituted for “educational activity.”
Thus, for 19 years (1992 until 2011), the terms “school day” and “instructional hours” were both statutorily defined in terms of “educational activity.” During that time, a “school day” was one in which students were engaged in “educational activity.” Laws of 1971, 1st Ex. Sess., ch. 161, § 1. And “educational activity” expressly included teacher/parent-guardian conferences. Laws of 1992, ch. 141, § 302(4). It follows that, at least from 1992 to 2011, days devoted entirely to teacher/parent-guardian conferences counted as a “school day,” because the conferences were included within the concept of “educational activity.” See Lenander v. Dep’t of Ret. Sys., 186 Wn.2d 393, 412, 377 P.3d 199 (2016) (“Statutes relating to the same subject are to be read together so as to constitute a unified whole.”).
The question then becomes whether the amendment that substituted the phrase “academic and career and technical instruction” for “educational activity” in the definition of “school day” changed this result. Courts often presume that an amendment to a statute signifies a change in the meaning of that statute. Darkenwald, 183 Wn.2d at 252. But there is no reason to infer that the legislature substituted “academic and career and technical instruction” for “educational activity” as a way of excluding days devoted entirely to teacher/parent-guardian conferences. No legislative history supports that inference, and if the legislature had intended that result, it more naturally would have simply amended the statute to say so in so many words. The legislature more likely amended the statute to make clear that a “school day” is not limited to instruction in only core academic courses but also includes “career and technical” education instruction in accordance with state statutory requirements. See RCW 28A.230.097. This reading gives effect to the plain language of the amendment. See Tesoro Refining & Mktg. Co. v. Dep’t of Revenue, 173 Wn.2d 551, 556, 269 P.3d 1013 (2012) (courts give effect to the plain meaning of statutory language).
The strongest argument against our reading is an intuitive one. If a school devotes some days entirely to teacher/parent-guardian conferences, many students presumably will not be at school at all on those days (even if a student accompanies his parent/guardian to his conference, it often takes multiple days for teachers to meet with all parents/guardians, so the student would not be at school some days). One might argue that it is absurd to say that a day on which many students are not even at school counts as a day “on which pupils . . . are engaged in academic and career and technical instruction[.]” RCW 28A.150.203(10). And courts try to read statutes to avoid absurd
[original page 6]
results. Fraternal Order of Eagles, Tenino Aerie 564 v. Grand Aerie of Fraternal Order of Eagles, 148 Wn.2d 224, 239, 59 P.3d 655 (2002).
But the maxim against absurd results “must be applied sparingly.” Five Corners Family Farmers v. State, 173 Wn.2d 296, 311, 268 P.3d 892 (2011). This is so because “by its terms, [the maxim] refuses to give effect to the words the legislature has written; it necessarily results in a court disregarding an otherwise plain meaning and inserting or removing statutory language, a task that is decidedly the province of the legislature.” Id. And there are at least two responses to the argument that it would be absurd to conclude that full days of teacher/parent-guardian conferences count as school days.
First, accepting this contrary view would lead to its own bizarre results. If a day devoted entirely to teacher/parent-guardian conferences did not qualify as a school day, schools could simply schedule such conferences as part of regular school days (e.g., a regular school day until noon, the students are released early, and then the teacher conducts a few teacher/parent-guardian conferences in the afternoon). Such a day would plainly count as a “school day,” but the resulting impact on students would be very similar in the sense that there would be large stretches of time where they are not at school despite it being a “school day.” There is no reason to think that the legislature intended to allow schools to take this approach but not to allow full days devoted to teacher/parent-guardian conferences.
Second, it is not necessarily absurd for a day to qualify as a “school day” even if the school knows that many students will be absent. For example, if many students are typically absent the day before Thanksgiving because of travel, no one would argue that such a day no longer qualifies as a school day such that the school must add a day to its calendar. The definition of “school day” is not focused on individual students, but rather on “pupils” in general.
Another possible argument against our conclusion is that where the legislature intended to allow for certain days to count toward the 180 day requirement that were not obviously within the definition in RCW 28A.150.203(10), it did so explicitly. For example, the legislature has provided that a school district “may schedule the last five school days of the 180 day school year for noninstructional purposes” “[i]n the case of students who are graduating from high school[.]” RCW 28A.150.220(5)(c). In addition, the legislature has allowed schools administering the Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills to “use up to three school days at the beginning of the school year to meet with parents and families as required in the parent involvement component of the inventory.” RCW 28A.150.220(5)(b). However, both of these provisions involve examples of activities that would not otherwise qualify as “instructional hours” under the statutes. Because teacher/parent-guardian conferences do count as “instructional hours,” the legislature may have simply seen no need to specify that a day spent on such conferences would count towards the 180 day requirement.
[original page 7]
In short, while we recognize that our conclusion is open to some question, we believe it is the best reading of the statutes as a whole. If the State Board of Education wants more certainty on this topic, it could issue a rule specifying that days spent entirely on teacher/parent-guardian conferences qualify as “school days” under RCW 28A.150.203(10), or it could potentially seek legislative amendments to clarify this issue.
We trust that the foregoing will be useful to you.
ROBERT W. FERGUSON
Assistant Attorney General
 The State Board of Education is authorized to grant school districts waivers from the requirements of RCW 28A.150.200 through .220 if such waivers are necessary to, among other things, “[i]mplement successfully a local plan to provide for all students in the district an effective education system that is designed to enhance the educational program for each student.” RCW 28A.305.140(1)(a). The legislature has directed the Board to adopt criteria to evaluate the need for waivers. RCW 28A.305.140(2).
 This was changed to six hours for pupils above the third grade, not less than four hours for grades one through three, and not less than three hours for kindergarteners in 1969. Laws of 1969, 1st Ex. Sess., ch. 223, § 28A.01.010.