Supreme Court rules against local school challenge

December 14, 2010

By Laura Geggel

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 Dec. 9, 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. Combined, the alliance and amicus school districts serve about two-thirds of students in the state receiving special education services.

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 was 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.

Issaquah School District Superintendent Steve Rasmussen agreed, saying the state needed to provide more money for special education services.

“We can’t afford to ignore the situation that exists: demand for special education services continues to expand while funding is shrinking,” Rasmussen said. “We will continue to raise this important issue with the Legislature.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn said that the problem of 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.”

Laura Geggel: 392-6434, ext. 241, or Comment at

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