Three families in King, Pierce and Thurston counties have asked the Thurston County Superior Court to overturn emergency education rules they say have harmed special-education students and shifted the burden of delivering education to parents.
The complaint centers on rules adopted by the state Board of Education and Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) which relaxed the number of “instructional hours” that schools must provide to students.
The rules call for at least 1,000 instructional hours and 180 school days each year. But OSPI waived the rules for the 2019-20 school year, and for the 2020-21 year, the state Board of Education is allowing flexibility in how an “instructional hour” is delivered. The changes were made because of the disruptions caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The rules have resulted in inequities that are compounded for students with disabilities, who need more school support, not less, the lawsuit alleges.
Kathy George, an attorney representing the families, said that though the suit was filed on behalf of families whose children receive special-education services, “it is designed to help everyone.” She said the state eased the rules about what constituted a basic education with “no public process, no comments.” The state’s definition of how long and how much education is required — 180 days of school and 1,000 hours of instruction — was first established by the state’s Basic Education Act of 1977, and has been amended in recent years to require 1,080 hours for students in grades 9-12.
George said she believes it is the only such suit that has been filed against the state, but that dozens of parents with children who receive special education have filed citizen complaints with OSPI.
OSPI declined to comment. Spokesperson Katy Payne said the office received the petition late yesterday and is still reviewing it.
When children diagnosed as needing special-education services lose those services, they are at risk of regressing, or even deteriorating, said Christine Beckwith, one of the parents involved in the lawsuit.
Beckwith said her 10-year-old son, who was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and several other behavioral disorders, was enrolled in a seven-student class in the Highline School District with a teacher, two paraeducators and a part-time social worker before COVID-19 forced the class to close as schools went online. After the class ended, Beckwith had to teach him at home using worksheets and a few Zoom meetings a week.
After his special-education class shut, her son had three episodes of such extreme emotional behavior that she considered taking him to the hospital.
Beckwith said she strongly pressed the district for better care for her son, and got him into a social-emotional behavioral camp for the summer. But Beckwith, who is an attorney, said she had the knowledge and expertise to push back and demand resources, something most parents don’t have.
Several other parents who are part of the lawsuit also described how the loss of special-education services affected them. Carolina Landa, one of the parents petitioning the court, said in a statement that she faces a major economic crisis if she is forced to quit her job so she can deliver educational services and therapies for her child.
Adrienne Stuart, another one of the parents petitioning the court, said in a statement that she believes “the state has a duty to spend whatever it takes to maintain a basic education for all students during the pandemic, and cannot hide behind an administrative rulemaking process with no public involvement to diminish basic education rights.”
The families filed the petition for judicial review in Thurston County on Tuesday.