Politics & Government

Updated: Supreme Court upholds state's special ed funding

In a split decision released this morning, the Washington Supreme Court sided with the state in a dispute over an alleged $150 million-a-year shortfall in funding special education at public schools.

Justice Susan Owens penned the majority opinion, linked here. She said the School Districts' Alliance for Adequate Funding of Special Education and other plaintiffs had not showed "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the state's funding formula was unconstitutional.

Five other justices also signed the majority, which concludes:

We affirm the Court of Appeals. We hold that the Court of Appeals applied the proper standard when it ruled that the Alliance must prove that the State underfunded basic education "beyond a reasonable doubt." We also hold that we must consider the BEA [basic education allotment] when determining whether the State underfunds special education. When the BEA is included, the Alliance has not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the State underfunds special education.

Justice Debra Stephens authored this opinion in concurrence, Justice Richard Sanders wrote this opinion in dissent and Justice Tom Chambers wrote this opinion that concurred in part and dissented in part.

This June 23 story about the original arguments before the court quoted school districts as saying the state underfunded special education by $150 million during the 2008-9 school year. The Court of Appeals, whose decision was upheld today, had agreed with the state that schools were not counting all the money they received.

The state had contended the districts should count basic education allotments in addition to special education dollars when calculating how much was given to the schools for special education. In her opinion, Justice Owens rejected arguments that the burden fell onto the state to show it had not underfunded special education.

Joining Owens in the majority were Chief Justice Barbara Madsen and Justices Charles Johnson, Gerry Alexander, Mary Fairhurst and James Johnson. Justices Sanders, who lost his re-election bid in November, was alone in his view. Justice Fairhurst signed Stephen's concurrence, and Justice James M. Johnson signed Chambers' partial concurrence and dissent.

The case is No. 82961-6. It began in Thurston County Superior Court before Judge W. Thomas McPhee.

UPDATE: Michael Reitz at the Evergreen Freedom Foundation has this take on the decision, noting it was the second suit rejected by the court on school funding this year. He suggested it is time for litigants to drop their the court challenges.

A third case that could have the biggest impact of all on public school funding is still pending in the courts. A King County judge found last year that the state was not meeting its obligation for ample funding of basic education, but the case is not finished.