State Supreme Court rules against increased funding for special education

December 9, 2010

By Laura Geggel

NEW — 4 p.m. Dec. 9, 2010

Washington’s school districts won’t be seeing any extra funding for special education programs anytime soon.

The state Supreme Court ruled on the School Districts’ Alliance for Adequate Funding of Special Education v. State on Thursday, deciding in an 8-1 vote that the alliance did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the state under funds special education.

The Issaquah School District helped spearhead the lawsuit in 2004, joining 11 other districts that also called into question how the state pays for special education.

The districts alleged that the state does not adequately fund special education, forcing districts to instead rely heavily on local taxpayer dollars. They asked the state to implement the constitutional mandate “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.”

In 2007, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Thomas McPhee determined the state’s funding cap on special education violates the state Constitution. However, McPhee’s ruling did not find that the state’s overall special-education funding formula is unconstitutional — the heart of the district’s argument.

In March 2009, the state Court of Appeals upheld that decision and the alliance appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court.

How the state funds special education

The state has three ways in which it pays for special education:

  • The Basic Education Allotment, money the state gives to districts depending on their student population.
  • The state provides districts with additional special education funding that is 0.9309 times the Basic Education Allotment for each special education student.
  • State safety net funds are available for students whose special education costs exceed $15,000; federal safety net funds are available for students whose special education costs exceed $21,000.

The alliance contended that even with these three methods of payment, their special education services were underfunded by $112 million, which had to paid for with local dollars.

The 12 districts in the alliance reported they had needed $147 million in total, but had only received $35 million through safety net funding, leaving the $112 million deficit.

Justice Susan Owens, author of the majority opinion information sheet, wrote, “This supposed deficit, however, does not include the BEA.”

Districts should not separate Basic Education Allotment funding from special education funding, since they both serve the purpose to educate children, she wrote.

Like the Court of Appeals, the state Supreme Court affirmed that the alliance “had not met its burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the special education funding mechanism violated the Washington Constitution,” Owens wrote.

In the dissenting opinion, Justice Richard Sanders wrote that the state should pay more for special education.

“All special education services are additional to a basic education — an ‘excess cost’ the state must fund,” he wrote.

Educators react to the ruling

Issaquah School Board President Jan Woldseth Colbrese called the state Supreme Court’s decision disappointing.

“When we started (the lawsuit), it was to help put pressure on and raise awareness about what we saw as a huge inequity,” in funding for special education, she said.

Besides the Issaquah district, the Bellingham, Bethel, Burlington-Edison, Everett, Federal Way, Lake Washington, Mercer Island, Northshore, Puyallup, Riverside and Spokane districts joined the lawsuit.

Though unhappy with the ruling, Woldseth Colbrese said the trial had brought more awareness to the problems facing funding for basic and special education.

“Sooner or later, they’ve got to get this right,” she said.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn said the problem of low education funding will not go away. Another lawsuit is making its way through the courts that could change the way the state pays for education.

“In February, the King County Superior Court, in the McCleary case, ruled that the state isn’t living up to its constitutional duty to amply fund education,” he said in a statement. “That case is where the real debate lies. When the state amply funds education, all students, including those who receive special education services, will benefit.”

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3 Responses to “State Supreme Court rules against increased funding for special education”

  1. Jean Michel on December 10th, 2010 6:11 am

    The amount of money already put into Special Education so completely overwhelms the money put into the educatoin of our brightest children (honor students, etc.) that it is shocking. The last time I looked, the amount put into Special Education compared to honors programs was a ratio of $116 to every $1. Until that becomes equal not one dime more should go into “special” needs students. “Special” has many definitions and it is not only those mentally challenged on the bottom, but applies to those special children that far outpace their fellow students.

  2. CANDY REYES on December 10th, 2010 8:57 pm

    I believe there is a need to have more funds for our special needs students- who not only need more supports but the student who are under-OHI-Other Health Impairment; especially in regard to the medical and physical supports. That will impact their learning and overall education progress. If anything, what comes to my mind is FAPE- Free Appropriate Public Education for everyone, and continuing to fund both areas of special need; meaning our wonderful [gifted and talented] and our special needs students- who learn, out of the box, per se. ‘Special’ has many definitions, indeed, yes, however there are many different levels of funding that our kids still need- who are considered Special Ed. Students. For me, I see a need to improve both ‘Special Education’ Needs, gifted and talented and our Special Needs Students under IDEA and so forth however some our fellow student(s) require more $$$funds then those at grade level or beyond/above grade level support(s). To say, not to fund or give more money- I wouldn’t think of. On another note, I can imagine the frustration level there. Granted when all said and done, remember a lot of those kids in Special Ed have underlining [Medical Condition] mental note: Autism and our most gifted students can be diagnosed with bipolar or have other mental, special challenges..what I like to say;were all connected somehow to the other and all the kids are learning and thriving however some need more and some require less and due to the fact they require less, does not mean, they should be left behind in regards to funds given to our future leaders of all cultures. Anyways, my two cents, and sharing with all doe respect. Candy Reyes- Special Needs Parent/ Army Wife- Self- Advocate- Joint Base Lewis, Mc Chord.

  3. Bonnie Hogard on December 17th, 2010 7:46 pm

    When was the last time that your reg-ed student got their PE cut because there wasn’t enough money to pay the teacher? When was the last time football got cut because there wasn’t a coach. Or music cut. Your student with advanced needs gets much more than my student with “special” needs. Jobs are easier to find, housing is easier to find, friends are easier to find, etc, etc, etc. These students deserve every chance that they can get to achieve the best life they can. It is especially difficult when they get older, as no therapist wants to work with them. If they don’t get the help in school and updated help at that, where are they supposed to get it?

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