Special education is basic education — the constitutional right of every student in Washington. Yet despite recent progress, state lawmakers still fail to fully fund programs and services for students with special needs.
This session, the Legislature appears poised to take one more small step toward meeting its legal and moral obligation to some of the state’s most vulnerable students. SB 6117, filed at the request of the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, would increase special education funding for students spending 80% or more of their school day in a general classroom. It would expand eligibility for safety-net funding for districts that can demonstrate they have no other way of raising revenues to cover special-education expenditures. It was unanimously approved by the Senate.
SB 6117 builds on recent increases to allocate an additional $12.5 million in special education funding. In an interview, Julia Warth, director of policy and research for the League of Education Voters, called it “an important step.”
But the increase would not close a $71 million funding gap for the 2020-21 school year — let alone cover projected future needs. The bill does not remove the artificial and arbitrary cap that limits state special education funding to 13.5% of a school district’s student population — regardless of how many students qualify. That cap is the larger issue, particularly for small districts, Warth said.
Budget proposals, citing recent increases in special-education funding, earmark $400,000 to study funding and service gaps, as well as special-education services. State leaders would have the Washington State Institute for Public Policy study the impacts and cost effectiveness of different educational strategies and services, with the intent of maximizing resources.
Certainly, government should spend efficiently. Eliminating the enrollment cap would help achieve that goal by directing special education dollars to the districts where they are needed. If lawmakers fear removing the cap would lead to disproportionate or excessive identification of students for special education, some technical assistance with screening would be a much more targeted way to achieve their goals.
There is nothing wrong with collecting data or making use of the already abundant body of research into best practices — but that cannot be an excuse to kick the can further down the road.
Olympia’s penny wise, pound-foolish refusal to fulfill its financial duties unfairly shifts responsibility to school districts — and local taxpayers — forced to bridge the gap through local levies. That is no way to fund basic education.
Instead, lawmakers should fully fund special education even as they continue to identify systematic improvements with direct ties to student outcomes. The promise of a better system tomorrow cannot be used as an excuse to shortchange students today.