Seattle Public Schools needs to better serve special-education students and provide consistent leadership at the top.

The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction rates the district at Level 3, a low mark opening the door to state intervention. That could include mandating changes in how the district spends its federal special-education dollars.

The state’s description of Seattle as a district frustratingly slow at times in evaluating students for special education is painfully recognizable to parents who have chafed at delays in needed services.

A different problem highlighted in the state report is the disproportionately high numbers of Native American, African-American and Hispanic students referred to special education for emotional or behavioral problems. The overrepresentation of minorities in special education raises credible concerns about the accuracy and fairness of Seattle’s processes.

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Superintendent José Banda must make hiring a new head of special education a top priority. Six special-education directors — and three superintendents — in five years means the line of responsibility is always shifting.

The systemic problems cannot be fixed without consistent leadership at the top.

The new person at the helm should have authority to set a uniform level of special-education services and outline how schools should provide them. Wide latitude given to principals works in a handful of extremely successful schools but results in disparities elsewhere.

Tacoma and Spokane also received low marks for how they serve special-education students.

These districts must get it right. The federal Individual with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, guarantees an education to children with disabilities. The increasingly complex nature of learning disabilities and other challenges make it tougher for districts but does not let them off the hook.

Funding is always a sore subject, none more so than in special education, which is funded through a combination of state and federal dollars.

When lawmakers in Olympia write the prescription for the state Supreme Court’s McCleary school-funding ruling, they must factor effective special education into the arithmetic.