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Published in Print: December 6, 2000, as Mich. Sued 3rd Time Over Spec. Ed. Funds

Mich. Sued 3rd Time Over Spec. Ed. Funds

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Michigan's system of financing special education is once again the subject of litigation.

In a lawsuit filed against the state last month, 366 school districts claim that the state government does not pay as much as it should to cover the cost of educating students with disabilities.

The suit, filed Nov. 15 in the Michigan Court of Appeals, marks the third time the state has been sued by districts over special education funding since 1978, when Michigan voters approved the "Headlee Amendment," a ballot measure that amended the state constitution to require that the state fully fund the programs it mandates.

The state isn't fully paying for special education services it requires, including transportation and instructional personnel costs, creating a shortfall of $460 million a year, the new lawsuit maintains.

The districts contend that they have to make up the difference by using money from their general education budgets.

Long History

Two decades ago, the first suit was filed by Donald Durant, a former president of the Fitzgerald, Mich., school board who became a special education advocate on behalf of his deaf son. The suit claimed the state was violating the Headlee Amendment by paying a lower percentage of special education costs than it should.

In 1997, the Durant case was settled for $840 million. Districts used the money to build auditoriums, buy computers, and fix roofs, projects that local school officials said they had forgone because of the need to pay for state-mandated special education services.

Then, the next year, a group of 264 districts took the state back to court, saying special education was underfunded by $375 million a year. In the Durant II case, as it came to be known, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that the state had violated the state constitution by shifting general per-pupil education funds to pay for special education in the 1997-98 school year.

The court said the state should have instead added more money for special education on top of that per-student amount. Under a ballot measure that Michigan voters approved in 1994, a certain amount of general per-pupil funding is guaranteed, with special education costs to be met through additional funds.

Suit Called 'Nuisance'

Dennis Pollard, a lawyer for the school districts, said the latest lawsuit was filed to stop the state from using a formula that still shortchanges districts.

Mr. Pollard contends that the state gives districts money from a general school fund, rather than providing a separate fund earmarked for special education, as he argues it should.

"The state has ignored the constitution for 22 years," Mr. Pollard said last week. "The court orders the state to pay for special education funds, and the state finds different formulas to avoid it."

A spokesman for Gov. John Engler said the state lost the Durant cases not because it neglects to provide funding for special education, but because it does not specify the purpose for which state funding should be used.

John Truscott, a spokesman for Mr. Engler, a Republican, called the lawsuit a "nuisance" and argued that it would curtail local spending autonomy.

"This is basically a refiling of the same lawsuit," Mr. Truscott said. "They are asking us to tell them how to spend every penny. We haven't done that as a state, because we think it is appropriate to leave those decisions up to the local level."

Vol. 20, Issue 14, Page 18

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