The state of California has agreed to pay more than half a billion dollars to school districts that claimed they were not given adequate funds over the past two decades to cover the costs of state-required special education programs.
Under a landmark settlement reached late last week, which ends a 20-year-old legal battle, districts with special education programs will get $520 million in retroactive payments. Worked out in months of negotiations between the administration of Gov. Gray Davis and the California School Boards Association, the agreement calls for doling out the money over 11 years, with $270 million paid in the current school year, followed by 10 annual payments of $25 million.
“We think it’s a good thing that this long problem is behind us,” said Sandy Harrison, a spokesman for the state finance department. “Now we can focus on the things that matter, like how to improve education.”
In announcing the settlement, Gov. Davis, a Democrat, said he would seek to increase funding to districts by another $100 million a year, a 3.5 percent increase in the per-pupil amount for special education. That money, state officials said, could be used for any needs identified for students with disabilities, including the purchase of specialized books, materials, and equipment; reductions in special education class sizes; and the hiring of instructional aides. The legislature would have to approve the funding as well as the payouts to districts provided under the settlement.
A Long Battle
Since 1980, California has required special education services that go beyond federal mandates. Local school officials have complained that they had to use money from their general budgets to cover the state’s requirements, diverting funds from broader purposes such as reducing class sizes.
The Riverside County school system filed the first claim against the state in 1981. Other districts joined the lawsuit over the years. The districts were seeking up to $2 billion in past reimbursements and $160 million annual increases in funding in the future. The state had contended that its required programs were properly financed, according to information released by the governor’s office.
“This settlement affords school districts the opportunity to focus on what is really important—educating California’s children, rather than spending time and resources locating documents and receipts for the past 20 years,” Gov. Davis said in a statement.
Of the state’s 5.9 million students, 650,000 are classified as needing special education, Mr. Harrison said.
A lawyer for the California School Boards Association said that the settlement averted what could have turned into far greater costs for the state.
The issue heated up in June, when the Commission on State Mandates, which determines whether state requirements are adequately funded by the state, told districts how to file special education claims, citing areas in which they could claim money.
Soon after that, the state controller issued directions for how districts should process the claims. The deadline for filing claims would have been Dec. 5, said Richard Hamilton, the associate general counsel for the state school boards’ association.
Mr. Hamilton said that deadline was probably a factor in the settlement’s timing, along with such other considerations as the strong California economy and the risk to the state of proceeding to trial. “It was ripe for resolution,” he said. “It’s a great day for school districts and youngsters with special education needs.”
California educators said last week it was too soon to gauge the settlement’s impact on schools.