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Special education funding ruled fair

Alliance of school districts had sued over financing

Donna Gordon Blankinship Associated Press

SEATTLE – The Washington Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the state is not shortchanging school districts in the way it pays for special education.

In an 8-1 ruling, the high court affirmed a Court of Appeals ruling sparked by a lawsuit brought by a dozen school districts across the state in Thurston County Superior Court.

The justices ruled that the Alliance for Adequate Funding of Special Education failed to prove the laws governing Washington’s special education financing are unconstitutional.

Attorney General Rob McKenna called the ruling good news for the state Legislature “because it affirms lawmakers’ authority to prioritize education funding for children with special needs within the context of the overall state budget. This is crucial as the state continues to struggle with budget challenges.”

The alliance has argued Washington districts have been forced to use money raised by school levies to support special education because they were not getting enough money from the state. It argued a $112 million shortfall in state money was being covered by local dollars.

The Supreme Court responded that the alliance should have included the basic education money given to school districts in their calculations, because the Legislature has consistently said special education students are also basic education students.

If, as the alliance’s expert told the court, the cost to educate a special education student is 190 percent of a basic education student, and the state says it allocates 193 percent of the cost of basic education for each special education student, then there should be no shortfall, the court concluded.

The alliance also argued that the courts put too high a burden on them to prove that special education spending was unconstitutional, requiring them to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. They felt the legal standard should be “preponderance of the evidence.” The Supreme Court disagreed.

“In Washington, it is well established that statutes are presumed constitutional and that a statute’s challenger has a heavy burden to overcome that presumption,” Justice Susan Owens wrote in the majority opinion.

All four of the opinions filed by Supreme Court justices in this case discuss basic education funding and the 1978 Supreme Court decision on this broader issue in Seattle School District No. 1 v. State.

Education watchers are waiting for the court to rule on a lawsuit related to the 1978 case and may be looking for clues in these rulings about how the court will decide in a pending case debating whether the state adequately pays for basic education.

In his dissent, Justice Richard Sanders commented at length on the law surrounding this debate and what role the judiciary plays in these discussions.

“This court’s role is not to ‘micromanage education’ but rather to provide broad constitutional guidelines in which the Legislature may operate to fulfill the mandate,” Sanders wrote. “Only arithmetic, not micromanagement, is needed to determine that a deficit of $112 million in special education funding is a violation of the state’s ‘paramount duty’ by application of the very statutes the state claims are constitutionally adequate.”

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