Washington school districts on Monday asked the courts to throw out the state's system of financing special education, saying over 120,000 students are being shortchanged by Olympia.
A loss could cost the state at least $100 million a year in more generous budgets.
Twelve districts from around the state, joined by Seattle, Tacoma and 70 other supporting districts, urged Thurston County Superior Court Judge Thomas McPhee to rule that the system falls short of the constitutional mandate to fully finance basic special education.
According to opening statements from the local school districts, the state is at least $130 million short of meeting the bare minimum. Districts end up filling the gap with local property taxes, shortchanging other students and violating the principle that the state constitution requires the state to finance an "ample'' basic education for all, said the coalition's attorney, John Bjorkman.
Assistant Attorney General Bill Clark defended the current setup, saying the state and local districts together fully meet the needs.
The current two-year state budget provides $1.38 billion in state and federal support for special education, roughly 10 percent of the K-12 budget of $13.8 billion. The state has 1 million pupils.
The trial is expected to last three weeks. A ruling against the state would throw the issue to Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Legislature, unless the state appealed.
The governor is writing her proposed 2007-09 state budget, including money for special education. She releases it in December and lawmakers write the final version next spring.
Gregoire declined direct comment on the challenge, but said her education study group, Washington Learns, wants to improve special education, particularly in the early years before kindergarten.
The state provides some services from birth to 2, followed by a system that covers students from age 3 to 21.
'We need to do a whole lot better in the early years,'' Gregoire said in an interview. ``If we did a good job in those early years, we would identify (potential problems) earlier, and we would take steps that could bring about dramatic improvement.
'Some students who are in special ed today would never even remotely have to be in (with early screening and treatment) and others wouldn't have to be at the level they are at now.''
The governor said she will seek money for state school Superintendent Terry Bergeson to scour all 296 districts and the rest of the country to find "best practices'' for special education.
"I'm excited for special ed in this state,'' Gregoire said. ``I think we have honed in on quality. It is not about just putting money into the system. It is about really looking at every one of these students individually and addressing those early on.''
The lawsuit was filed two years ago and is just now coming to trial. Twelve districts formed the School Districts' Alliance and headed to the courthouse after talks with the Legislature failed to produce adequate progress, said Spokane School District Superintendent Brian Benzel, one of the state's foremost voices on education reform.
"The state has not honored its obligation,'' leaving it to the local districts to scrounge for local dollars, Benzel told a news conference outside the courtroom.
Everett Superintendent Carol Whitehead said, "We don't dream up whether a child needs special education'' and must serve all who show up. The case is important to every student, because districts are forced to divert money from other programs, she said.
The challenge has been supported by 72 other districts, collectively serving 62 percent of the state's special education children.
Nearly 30 years ago, another Thurston County judge, Robert Doran, handed down a landmark decision that required the Legislature to define basic education and to fully pay for it. He later ruled that special education was included in the edict.
Since then, the state has created a two-part financing system. The state pays for 12.7 percent of a district's pupils to be designated for special education aid that is roughly double the amount the district gets for other students. Districts can also apply for "safety net'' supplements for high-cost children, such as the severely autistic.
Bjorkman, the districts' attorney, told the court that the formula is broken and that the state isn't meeting its constitutional mandate. Some districts have more than 12.7 percent special education students and have to absorb millions of dollars in uncovered costs, and the safety-net supplements don't begin to cover all true costs, he said.
"We are here to raise a collective statewide plea to fix what is a broken system,'' he told McPhee. "It shortchanges everyone. This (special education) is enforceable like a civil right. It is a civil obligation. It is a moral obligation.''
Bjorkman said one expert will estimate the shortfall at $230 million a year.
Clark, the state's attorney, said no one is being shortchanged and that the only question is who pays. He said the critics' assertion of a huge shift of the burden to local districts "doesn't stand up in rigorous scrutiny.'' He said it's reasonable to expect districts to tap all available resources and not look to Olympia for everything.
He said it's also reasonable for Olympia to expect local districts to be efficient and cost-effective.
McPhee, in his only public comment on the case, underscored that previous rulings require the state to fulfill its constitutional mandate to fully finance basic education for special education students.
Benzel noted that an even larger potential court case, challenging the state's financing of the entire K-12 system, is "rattling around out there. It may not be much longer.''
—The Associated Press