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Parents sue two state agencies, saying students are being deprived a basic education

courtesy of Adrienne Stuart
C.W. and J.W. are children in Tacoma. Their parents are part of a group suing two state agencies, arguing the state is failing to provide a basic education to students, including the special education services their children need.

UPDATE, 1:15 pm: Adds response from the State Board of Education. 

A handful of parents are taking the state to court, arguing that students are being shortchanged a basic education during the pandemic.

The parents, who live in Tacoma, Normandy Park and Olympia and all have children with special needs, have filed a petition for judicial review in Thurston County Superior Court against the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education.

State law sets the minimum number of instructional hours that schools have to provide students. For kindergarten through eighth grade, school districts have to provide at least 1,000 instructional hours in a school year, and for grades 9-12 at least 1,080 instructional hours. The school year must consist of at least 180 school days.

But when the pandemic hit in the spring, the state superintendent’s office used emergency rules to waive the number of instructional hours districts had to provide. Then last month, the State Board of Education redefined an instructional hour for the coming school year to include “learning modalities” that include distance learning, hybrid classrooms and “other methods that allow for delivery of basic education services during the COVID-19 epidemic.”

Kathy George, an attorney for the parents, said the end result is that students are being deprived of the education they’re entitled to. And the parents assert that the state is shifting the burden to parents to provide basic educational services for their children.

“The parents who brought this case are very concerned that these rules have relaxed the requirements for a basic education in Washington,” George said.

The parents are asking for the judge to invalidate the emergency rules. George said the parents want to know whether students are entitled to extra instructional hours to make up for what they did not receive in the spring.

Katy Payne, a spokesperson for the state superintendent’s office, said they had just received the petition and could not yet comment. Stephanie Davidsmeyer, a spokesperson for the State Board of Education, said the agency has no substantive comment on pending litigation.

In the legal filing, the parents described how their children failed to receive the special education services that they’re entitled to during distance learning in the spring. Adrienne Stuart and Reid Wilkes have a 6-year-old son who does not use spoken words to communicate and uses an eye-gaze device to interact with the world. They said he was not provided access to his paraeducator during the school closure and did not receive physical or occupational therapies.

Carolina Landa, whose 13-year-old son is autistic and non-verbal, said he did not receive the paraeducator support or speech therapy that he’s entitled to receive under his individualized education program.

“Households like mine are at real risk of losing everything if I’m forced to quit work in order to deliver educational services and therapies for my child,” Landa said.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.