The popular understanding of budgets is that, despite coming across like cold ledger sheets, they are deeply human documents, a numeric portrait of priorities — in other words, the things we care about.

Going by that metric, it’s hard to stomach the implications of Washington’s long-inadequate funding plans for the 151,000 students who need extra help to become well educated. The state Office of Public Instruction says schools are spending $400 million more than lawmakers provide each year on these legally mandated special education services — everything from speech therapy to full-time aides.

The reason for this shortfall is that Washington uses a somewhat arbitrary cap — 13.5% of a district’s student population — to determine how many special-needs kids the state will pay for. Any amount beyond that is funded by local levies, that is, local taxpayers. And sometimes those levies fail.

This is surely not what the writers of Washington’s constitution intended when they said it was the state’s duty “to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.”

Chris Reykdal, state superintendent of public instruction, in consultation with Rep. Gerry Pollet, is requesting $972 million to close the gap over the next biennium and asking that the Legislature nix its old 13.5% cutoff on the number of kids who can be identified for special education. Washington is an outlier in this area, one of only five states that uses an enrollment-based flat cap to limit special education spending.

Reykdal’s ask diverges widely from what Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed. In his 31-minute State of the State address last week, Inslee devoted 15 seconds to special education, suggesting that the Legislature bump up its cap to 15% of a district’s enrollment and add $120 million to the budget for very young special-needs kids.


At one level, dickering over percentages is beside the point. “They’re treating it like a math problem,” said Sarah Butcher, co-founder of the education advocacy group SEL for Washington. “It’s not a math problem. It’s a system-design issue.”

What she means is that Washington’s education system — built on the “prototypical schools” model — was never conceived as a place for meeting the needs of kids with developmental delays, learning disabilities or who are emotionally troubled. Prototypical schools is a numeric designation, where staffing and other services are determined by enrollment averages, rather than the particular needs of the individual students in any given building.

To meet today’s realities, the state constantly tweaks its funding formulas. But that’s not real change.

Questions around accountability cannot be ignored. Increases to basic education spending over the last decade have resulted, by definition, in some boosts to special education. And Seattle Times reporting has shown that the state spent $38 million on special schools for high-needs kids, with little oversight and, in some cases, horrific results.

Reykdal’s proposal might be described as the Cadillac version of special ed funding, and Inslee’s the Hyundai model. Between these two poles, there are at least four other bills vying to tackle the problem this legislative session. That’s more attention than special-needs kids have seen in a long time, and it’s overdue. Parents report that, in an effort to keep costs down, schools have delayed identifying children for services — in some case for years.

After much foot-dragging, the Legislature finally began to address the real price of basic education after the courts forced it to fund the McCleary settlement in 2018. It shouldn’t take another lawsuit to get real about special-needs kids, too.