The McCleary case has been a hot topic of conversation among parents, policymakers and education experts during the past few years – but a key part of the ruling is often neglected. Without understanding the court’s full ruling, we risk making poor policy decisions and not addressing the intent of the case at all. You have to read the 2012 Washington Supreme Court ruling closely or you may miss this small but consequential part.
McCleary isn’t just about the adequacy of dollars that the state puts into basic education, it is also about the equity of the funding sources for basic education. Adequacy and equity are fundamentally different but related points. When discussing school district levies, the majority opinion in McCleary cites the inherent inequity of using local school district levies to fund basic education. They caution that using levies to fund basic education gives districts in areas with high property values access to more resources than districts with lower property values – meaning a student’s access to basic education depends on their ZIP code.
Local levies are supposed to buy extras for districts: enrichments to basic education that enable districts to provide a more meaningful educational opportunity to students. But the reality is that in almost every district, local levy resources are being used to provide a still underfunded part of basic education: special education. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction estimates that prior to the recent state funding enhancements in 2018 resulting from McCleary, districts were spending more than $300 million per year in local levy funding on special education.
Students who receive special education services are in every school, and more students have needs that go unserved because they are not identified. Students with disabilities can include students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), dyslexia, anxiety disorder, physical health conditions, intellectual disabilities, twice-exceptionality, behavioral health conditions such as significant depression, and other learning challenges.
Special education is unambiguously a part of basic education in state law and therefore must be funded by the state, not local levies, so that every student with a qualifying disability has the supports they need to access their education. When Washington fails to fund special education, we put districts in a position to not be able to meet the needs of students with disabilities. Worse yet, by underfunding special education and relying on district levy resources to make up the shortfall, we create a system of special education with inequity built into the foundation.
The Legislature must address this shortfall by investing in special education programs and creating a funding system that accounts for the true cost of the diverse needs of the over 140,000 Washington students with disabilities. This would also allow levy dollars to be spent on their intended purpose – enrichments – and ease some of the budget constraints districts now say they face. If the Legislature simply increases the levy lid to allow districts to raise more levy dollars, which it is proposing to do, this is an inadequate approach to the special education funding crisis. Raising the levy lid will help some districts more than others and put a greater burden on lower-income communities in the process.
Washington needs a meaningful solution with a robust state investment that provides students with disabilities the resources they need to access their basic education, regardless of where they attend school.
Laura Hitchcock is interim chief executive officer of the League of Education Voters, founded in 2001 by Washingtonians to support an education system that provides every student an equal opportunity for success from cradle to career.
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