Going into the legislative session, many Washington school district officials said one of their biggest priorities was to get more funding for special education.
Now that lawmakers passed a two-year budget and adjourned, some district leaders say they're disappointed in how much lawmakers approved for special education services.
Seattle Public Schools, for example, said the extra from the state amounts to about $2 million annually, but the district spends $70 million in local levy funds to cover the special education costs not provided by the state.
State Superintendent Chris Reykdal said what legislators approved is not what districts had hoped for, but it is a step forward. The state has added about $125 million in direct supports to students with disabilities over the next two years.
“That’s a huge improvement on where we are,” Reykdal said. “We think they’re getting a lot closer, and I don’t have a perfect number to say we’re done, but they’re getting a lot closer.”
Reykdal said special education is basic education, meaning the state is on the hook for it. But even with this increase, Reykdal said the state still is not fully covering the costs. So he's told school districts they can use local levies to make up the difference, even though the state requires levy funds be used for enrichment purposes and not basic education.
“I understand why the Legislature has a hard time saying, 'Hey, when it comes to special ed, there’s no budget, it’s a blank check. You guys do whatever you need to do and send us the bill,’” Reykdal said. “But I think legally, that’s pretty much what the federal government drives.”
Tom Seigel, superintendent of the Bethel School District in Pierce County, said the state may face a lawsuit over this issue.
Lawmakers did take steps to address how schools educate students in special education. For example, the state is providing $25 million for professional development for educators to learn best practices on including students with disabilities in general education classrooms.
And starting in the 2020-21 school year, the state will pay slightly more for students who spend more than 80 percent of their time in general education settings.
“Part of the rationale of the higher multiplier for more time in general ed is there are additional costs, so those costs can go along with providing additional supports in the form of paraeducators or other wraparound supports that a general ed class would need to still function well,” said Jessica Vavrus, director of government relations for the Washington State School Directors’ Association.
Washington lags the national average when it comes to including students with disabilities in general education settings. Federal law requires that students in special education be taught with their general-education peers to the maximum extent possible.