During this Washington Legislature session, lawmakers must fix the way the state is funding special education.
School districts across Washington agree on at least one critique of the state’s new education-funding plan: The Legislature is still not spending enough money on special education.
Lawmakers must fix this problem before the session adjourns March 8.
Unlike some other unintended consequences of Washington’s new way of paying for public schools, underfunding special education could hurt students’ education as well as prompt more time- and money-wasting lawsuits.
The state Senate is considering a proposal that could partially fill the gap, but it doesn’t go far enough. The latest version of Senate Bill 6362 — a measure being used as the vehicle for various proposed adjustments to the education-funding plan adopted in 2017 — calls for increasing special-education dollars by only about $30 million a year. That’s enough money to address the special-education shortfall in only one district: Seattle.
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 the shortfall in state education dollars for special education. The Washington Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that school districts should not use levy dollars to pay for basic education.
Reykdal has proposed adding $160 million to the state budget for special education, in order to eliminate the need to spend any local levy dollars for this important aspect of basic education. Without it, local districts will have to cover costs some other way.
This amount would bring Washington’s expenditures for special education up to the current national average, as opposed to the outdated 1995 formula the state currently employs.
Alternatively, some lawmakers have proposed fixing the problem by adding more money to the special education safety-net account, but the safety net is set aside for extraordinary needs of individual children. School districts cannot apply for millions of dollars from the safety-net account to make up for an overall shortfall.
Nearly 130,000 special-education students and their families would be affected by this shortfall. Special education is not the only part of the education budget that needs work, but it is the most urgent. Lawmakers should also look at adjusting the regionalization factors for teacher pay and carefully consider some more technical fixes to the budget.
But special education should be their top education priority.