Gov. Jay Inslee should call a special session of the Legislature to fix the way the state pays for special education.
Though the Washington Legislature satisfied the Supreme Court’s basic education funding demands, its irresponsible indolence on special-education funding is coming back to haunt districts, students, families and taxpayers
Gov. Jay Inslee should call a special session within the next month to move special education funding into the “done” column.
The urgency comes after the Legislature failed to fully fund special education in its McCleary school financing reform that includes the state paying more for basic education and limiting how much districts can ask local taxpayers in school levies. That puts districts in a difficult position since many were covering some of the costs of special education with local levies. Now many school leaders are claiming their budgets are unsustainable.
School districts need the clarity on special-ed funding only the Legislature can provide. Without it, more districts will pitch headlong into the next year, trying to avoid a budget abyss. Already, 10 of the 14 enrichment levies approved by state officials for the February ballot mention special education in the school district’s plan.
The Seattle School Board offers one of the best reasons for getting this done right away.
The state’s largest school district is considering asking voters to approve a new operations levy that goes well beyond the $2,500 per student amount allowed by new state budget rules. The district says it needs more local-levy dollars to cover its special education budget shortfall. The Renton School District also mentions special education as a major driver for its proposal. State officials expect more levy proposals to be filed in the next few weeks.
That means voters, many already paying much more in increased state-property taxes, will be asked to approve local levies that include paying for programs the state should fund. In editorial board endorsement interviews in the past few months, every incumbent lawmaker admitted as much.
If lawmakers wait until January, when the Legislature convenes for its regular session, lawmakers are at risk of getting caught up in a whirlwind of competing priorities, and the children will be forgotten again until the budget debate heats up in the spring, long after those ballot measures are decided.
Under the new law, local levies are supposed to provide money for the enrichment programs local families want or need, like more school nurses, better libraries, new sports equipment and additional staff or equipment for music and arts programs. They may no longer be used for basic education as defined by state law, because levies were at the core of inequality in Washington school funding.
The Legislature needs to take the special-education funding issue off the table. Special education is clearly basic education and therefore must be funded by the state budget, not by local levies, as the Washington Supreme Court made very clear in its 2012 McCleary decision.
Part of the problem is some students have greater needs than others. But no matter their disability, all students with special needs are guaranteed a free and appropriate education by federal law. The state provides some money — a special-education safety net — to reimburse school districts for special-education costs that exceed state and federal funding. School districts say neither funding source is adequate.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal says school districts across the state used a total of $164 million in local-levy dollars during the 2015-16 school year to make up for a shortfall in state education dollars for special education. During the 2018 legislative session, Reykdal proposed adding $160 million to the state biennial budget for special education. Lawmakers added just $26.9 million for the 2018-19 school year, and Reykdal has suggested the districts need an additional $150 million for the next biennium.
The schools chief also proposed creation of a tiered system to provide a different level of funding for students according to how much of their day is spent in special instruction. This potentially smart approach would save more money.
Special sessions can be complicated, but the special-education issue seems well on its way to a bipartisan solution. That solution needs to come sooner than next spring.