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Washington schools lose lawsuit over special education funding

The state Supreme Court on Thursday ruled against the Alliance for Adequate Funding of Special Education, a consortium of 11 school districts that wanted to change how the state funds special education.

Federal Way was a plaintiff to the suit that alleged the state was not providing adequate funding for special education students. The alliance held that special education students are costlier than basic education students, forcing districts to use property tax levies to make up the difference.

The court affirmed a previous Court of Appeals ruling that said the plaintiffs must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the state was underfunding special education. The court also maintained that the state’s basic education allocation — or BEA, the amount the state reimburses districts for each pupil — must be considered in the matter.

“When the BEA is included,” wrote majority author Justice Susan Owens, “the Alliance has not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the state underfunds special education.”

The BEA funds a portion of a special education student’s costs, but Federal Way officials maintain that it’s not enough.

“The current special education funding system is inadequate. We are disappointed that the court did not recognize that these programs are significantly underfunded, resulting in a negative impact for all children,” said Federal Way Superintendent Robert Neu in a written statement. “The state has a constitutional obligation to provide ample resources for the education of all children.”

By law, an “individualized education plan” is created for each special education student by a collaboration of parents, teachers and specialists. Some special education students may spend a majority of their day in general education classes, but likely receive extra instruction, like sessions with a speech pathologist. Some students remain with the district until age 21.

Assistant Superintendent of Business Affairs Sally McLean used the 2007/2008 budget year as an example. In that year, the BEA was $6,267 per student. The cost of a special education student on average was $7,580, and the district served a special education population of 2,630 that year. The state does provide extra funding for special education students — the product of the BEA multiplied by 0.9309. The plaintiffs say it’s not enough: some special education students may need costly services, like long-distance transportation or medical care.

There is also a financial “safety net” for special education students, but not all students meet the state threshold for reimbursement. McLean said that this year’s threshold is $23,492.

In 2007/2008, the district spent $19.9 million on special education and was reimbursed $16.4 million by the state. In the 2009/2010 school year, that deficit was smaller because of temporary federal stimulus dollars; the district spent $18.9 million and was reimbursed $17.3 million.

To bridge the funding deficit, Federal Way taps the maintenance and operations property tax levy.

Deputy Superintendent Mark Davidson said Federal Way joined the suit under former superintendent Tom Murphy in 2004. The special education funding problem was becoming a bigger burden at that time.

“It felt like it was not going to get better unless someone took a stand on the issue,” he said.

Davidson does not foresee the district being part of any further legal action on this matter. However, he said this issue has a higher profile because of the suit, and anticipates seeing some action on it in the Legislature.

“I don’t think it would make more sense to do any further legal action. We’ve tried everything we can,” he said. “But I think we’ve created some questions.”

Ongoing lawsuits will resume the fight for education funding in Washington state.

“We’ve always anticipated a series of lawsuits against the state for failure to fund basic education,” said Grace Yuan, an attorney representing the Alliance. “Special education funding is part of that.”

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