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Report: Wash. Schools Must Overhaul How They Serve Students With Disabilities

Colin Archer
AP Photo
A special education teacher works with students during a money counting exercise in a 6-8 grade class at a middle school in New Jersey.

Students receiving special education services in Washington public schools are less likely than their peers to graduate from high school and more likely to end up suspended or expelled, and in many cases, their disabilities are not to blame, according to a new state report.

In the report, the independent state office that handles disputes between parents and public schools calls on state lawmakers to empower a blue ribbon commission to determine how best to remove "unnecessary divisions between 'special education' and 'general education.'"

"The system itself perpetuates limitations in expectations and false believe systems about who children with disabilities can be and how much they can achieve in their lifetime," reads the report from the Office of the Education Ombuds, an agency within the Governor's Office.

Services And Outcomes

Despite efforts to include students with disabilities in "typical" classroom settings, parents and special education advocates say students with disabilities are still too often segregated from their peers, putting them out of sight and out of mind.

Federal education officials have ratcheted up pressure on Washington and other states, hoping to ensure students with special needs not only receive the services they need, but also have better educational outcomes as a result. Washington was one of 32 states the feds flagged as falling short of expectations.

State officials have upped the pressure, too, recently freezing more than a quarter of the federal funding for Seattle Public Schools' troubled special education program.

Not Just A Seattle Problem

But Office of the Education Ombuds director Stacy Gillett, one of the report's authors, says Seattle's struggles are more visible because of the district's size, but are far from unique.

"When [Seattle Public Schools] don't get it right, you have a larger, more vocal population saying, 'Whoa, that's not OK,' when in fact we hear that in our office from smaller districts, rural communities and other districts in the Puget Sound area the same kinds of problems," she said.

Statewide, Gillett says the vast majority of students receiving special education services are no more cognitively-impaired than their peers, but more than one-third of students who received these services struggle to land jobs or access higher education after they leave high school.

'We Don't Need To Label Kids In Order To Serve Them'

The Ombuds Office report calls on the legislature to create and fund a 12-member commission of educators, parents, state officials and experts who could direct research and make annual recommendations on how to improve special education.

Though Gillett says the commission will have to craft solutions to the problem, she says the key will be breaking down the barriers that leave special education students portioned off from their peers. She also advocates for funding changes that might help schools anticipate challenges and offer students services more quickly.

"We can get away from this notion that we have to label kids in order to serve them. If we can spend some time just getting kids the help they need, rather than seeing them as individual funding streams before we provide intervention and instruction, we'll have a more compassionate and equitable system," Gillett said.

If the legislature funds the blue ribbon commission, it could begin work as soon as July, and could develop a timetable that stretches perhaps as long as 10 years.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.