Students with disabilities in Washington state have some of the lowest outcomes in the country. This year, lawmakers say they want to turn things around.

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In Olympia, lawmakers are tackling an issue they’ve largely ignored: Education for students with disabilities.

Over the weekend, the state Senate unanimously passed two bills that would improve funding, accountability and programs for special-education services that federal law guarantees to 15 percent of Washington’s 1.1 million public-school students. They now await consideration from the House, which is expected to unveil its 2019-21 budget proposal later this month.

Washington ranks near the bottom on federal special-education reports because of its poor student outcomes and segregated classrooms.

Unlike the state legislature’s 2017 overhaul of Washington’s school-funding model, this time, it’s not a court-ordered deadline that’s pushing lawmakers to act. The urgency, they say, stems from the grim realities advocates have cited for years.

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None of this is new: More than one-third of students who receive special-education services dropped out of school during the 2014-2015 academic year, according to a report from the Department of Education — giving Washington the country’s third-highest rate at the time. And even though most students here don’t have severe cognitive challenges, a KING-5 story first reported, fewer than 20 percent of special-education students met goals on state standardized tests in English, math and science last school year.

Special education is an umbrella term for services that adapt curriculum and teaching for a wide range of conditions. Students eligible for such services can have cognitive or physical disabilities such as autism, orthopedic impairments, deafness and ADHD.

Despite these problems, the funding fix lawmakers devised to satisfy the McCleary lawsuit ruling largely lacked solutions for special education — and districts cite problems with funding for students with disabilities as an argument for more flexibility on how much money they can collect through levies.

“You would think a state like Washington, which just hosted the Special Olympics, would be doing really well,” said Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, chief Republican budget writer and one of eight lawmakers who drafted Washington’s new education funding model. The numbers are bad, he said, but more funding isn’t going to be enough to improve them.

Federal law requires that students with disabilities be integrated as much as possible.

Some students do need to spend some time away from their peers for specialized instruction, but many parents and politicians say school districts here often default to segregation — which could drive the low outcomes.

“They get so far behind academically,” said state superintendent Chris Reykdal. “School districts say, ‘Let’s isolate students to get them caught up in something, and then they’re missing core content.’”

In the 1970s, researchers at the University of Washington’s Haring Center demonstrated that children with Down syndrome — many of whom were institutionalized or not allowed to enroll in public schools at the time — could successfully learn. Today, 63.3 percent of special-education students nationwide spend 80 percent or more of the school day inside general-education classrooms. In Washington, only 54.4 percent have that same high level of inclusion.

“Thirty-five years of research shows that students with and without disabilities do better when we teach them in the same classroom,” said Christi Kasa, an inclusion expert and associate professor at the University of Colorado.

“It’s all mindset,” said Kasa, who contracts with districts that want to improve their special education programs. “When I go in and restructure from segregated classrooms to inclusion … I save them money.”

Funding proposals

Education funding comes from state, federal and local sources — and the state manages it through a complicated thicket of equations. Generally, for each special-needs student, the state pays districts the amount of funding each general-education student is allotted — plus an additional 96 percent of that figure. The degree of that boost is known as a multiplier.

For example, a school district may receive $3,000 per student, but for every special-needs student, the district would collect an extra $2,900 to pay for supports and services.

But districts only receive those additional funds for up to 13.5 percent of their total student enrollment. As of last year, 198 district and charter schools’ special-needs populations exceeded that limit. One bill that sought to remove the cap failed early in the session.

Two years ago, lawmakers increased the multiplier to bring districts more money to pay for ever-increasing special-education costs.

“Every state in the country is talking about this,” said Emily Parker, a senior policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States.

While enrollment in special education hasn’t necessarily increased recently, she said, the overall cost of services has. Parker speculated that the severity of students’ needs or competition for specialists may contribute to that trend.

The solution passed by the Senate on Saturday proposes a multiplier of 100 percent, meaning districts would get double their state per-pupil allotment for each student with a disability. But this change would generate only around $42 million more annually — a figure dwarfed by the $300 to $400 million gap school districts are projecting.

That boost could increase. Senate budget writer Christine Rolfes (D-Bainbridge) announced late last month that $400 million more would be added for special education in the next biennial budget.

The leading solution would also improve accessibility to a separate pot of money districts apply to in order to receive reimbursements for extreme costs such as instruction and care in a residential facility.

Still, there’s no guarantee lawmakers will offer districts much relief.

“We won’t see a big overhaul,” House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said last month.

Districts have cited their special-education costs — which amounted to $234 million more than what state and federal funding provided last school-year — as a rallying cry to roll back the recent limits on local property-tax collection.

So instead of fully funding the gap, the Legislature could give them that flexibility, said Dan Steele, assistant director of government relations for the Washington Association of School Administrators.

But that solution mostly benefits big districts like Seattle, where voters overwhelmingly supported levies that could collect double what current state law allows.  

“It’s going to be a tough sell,” Steele said, for smaller districts where voter support for levies isn’t always as strong.

The most ambitious proposal, crafted by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, would have phased in $300 million over the course of several years, and provided a financial incentive for districts that do a better job integrating their classrooms.

The approach would have adjusted funding for different degrees of services provided to students and the amount of time they spent in general-education settings. But Democrats and teachers unions dismissed it, saying it was too cumbersome.

When he first heard this idea, Steele, who has spent over a decade tracking education issues in Olympia, was similarly skeptical. But once he took the time to learn more, he said, he found it “really does make educational and fiscal sense.” There was still a bigger problem, he said: It wouldn’t close the yearly gap.

Steele said, “Legislators have to deal with thousands of issues and sometimes they don’t have the time to take to figure out how it works.”

Changing practices

Parents rallied around causes beyond money. Beth Sigall, a Lake Washington parent whose son now attends the Autism Spectrum Navigators program at Bellevue College, said she hopes to solve a deeper cultural problem.

“Until we get past thinking about special education solely … compliance with formulas and regulations, we probably won’t move the needle much,” Sigall said.

Sigall trekked to Olympia with other mothers and testified in support of legislation that would offer families access to independent advocates and create local advisory committees so families could help make sure districts know their community’s needs. The bill, which the Senate also unanimously passed Saturday, would also improve training for general education teachers on special education.

Testifying alongside the cadre of moms: Nathan Sebe, an 11-year-old with autism who attends Jane Addams Middle School in Seattle.

“I was lucky enough to have good, trained teachers that have been understanding and helpful,” Nathan said. “But I can imagine that some other students who have disabilities may not have been as lucky.”

Another bill would have established some schools as demonstration sites for educators to learn about inclusion.

The legislation died in committee last week, but Sarah Butcher, a longtime parent advocate and vice chairperson for the state’s Special Education Advisory Council, said lawmakers could resurrect the idea.

“If we keep students at the center of this conversation, it is so much more than funding,” Butcher said.

Paraeducators — the support staff who provide more than half of all instruction in special-education classrooms — have also gotten legislative attention.

In 2017, lawmakers nearly unanimously approved new rules for how school districts train paraeducators. Now, the state board that oversees educators wants the Legislature to provide $25.5 million to pay for that training.

Alexandra Manuel, executive director of the Professional Educator Standards Board, noted that teachers and school administrators must go through years of training before they can set foot in a classroom.

She said, “That’s not the case for paraeducators.”