Arguments the state Supreme Court heard Tuesday are part of a larger debate about whether the state is spending enough money to educate students.
Basic education spending could soon be under the Supreme Court’s microscope, but for now, justices are considering only whether the state is giving schools enough money for special education.
A dozen school districts including Bethel, Federal Way and Puyallup sued in 2004, accusing the state of shortchanging students with special needs.
The state disputed their math, saying the districts aren’t counting all the money they receive, and the Court of Appeals agreed. But districts say state funding in 2008-09 fell $150 million short of what they needed to pay for special education, a growing gap they must fill with money from local levies.
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“Once you get through all the numbers they use to obfuscate the reality, we are using local levy dollars ... for both special education and basic education,” Bethel Superintendent Tom Seigel said. “Anyone who believes otherwise is not reviewing the facts.”
More than 2,000 of Bethel’s roughly 17,000 students receive some kind of special education, making their schooling more expensive.
The district spent more than $21 million to educate those students in 2008-09, but received just $18 million from the state and federal governments, said Harvey Erickson, the school district’s chief financial officer. It made up the rest, more than $3 million, with local taxes.
But while those numbers show the full cost of educating special-education students, they don’t include the funding Bethel and other districts receive for the same students’ basic education – the instruction on reading, writing, arithmetic and the rest. Whether that basic-ed funding should be counted is the question at the heart of the case.
“It’s artificial to split those up,” said David Stolier, senior assistant attorney general.
Assistant attorney general Bill Clark argued to the justices that when they add the $4,088 the state paid for each student’s basic education to the $3,806 it paid per special education student, they’ll find “every alleged shortfall in this case vanishes,” and there’s even some money left over for schools.
The Court of Appeals agreed, but Justice Debra Stephens, seemed skeptical Tuesday of the idea that districts have plenty of money.
“We know, certainly, the levies are being passed to support what the state provides for special education,” Stephens said. “Common sense tells us there’s not a lot of leftover money out there.”
But another justice, Gerry Alexander, had sharp questions for John Bjorkman, attorney for the school districts, about why the districts don’t count basic- education money in deciding whether special- education students’ needs are being met.
Justice Richard Sanders and Chief Justice Barbara Madsen also questioned Bjorkman: Doesn’t the basic-education money follow the students, even if their special needs take them out of a mainstream classroom? It does in part, Bjorkman said, but it doesn’t cover their special-education services.
The state has appealed that case to the Supreme Court. But legislators, acknowledging they aren’t paying for some of schools’ basic needs, have committed to overhaul public school funding by 2018.