We should all care about this issue, whether or not our own family has a special education student.

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Thank you to The Seattle Times editorial board for calling out the need for the Legislature to work to ensure every student in Washington receives a basic education. We know legislators may be ready to move on to other issues, but for 140,000 kids in Washington eligible for special-education services, waiting another few years to improve special education will be too late.

When our elected officials left Olympia last year, they did not close the funding gap for special-education students, and students and families continue to suffer. All schools and districts are struggling to fill this gap — especially small and rural districts and charter public schools, most of which see higher numbers of special-education students in their student bodies than the state average — putting deep pressure on their budgets. Schools have diverse students. They need the funds and support to ensure learning is accessible to all. Every student must get what they need, when they need it. We need to invest in their potential.

Students who receive special-education services are in every school, and more students have needs that go unserved because they are not identified. Students with disabilities can include students with dyslexia, anxiety disorder, physical health conditions, intellectual disabilities, twice-exceptionality, behavioral-health conditions such as significant depression and other learning challenges.

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Many families have students attending schools where special-education services are underresourced, where teachers do not have full training or supports such as instructional aides in classrooms and where funding falls short. When some students are not served, all students are affected, both by preventing special-education students from accessing research-informed best practices for the best learning opportunities, and thereby denying our communities the assets that every student brings when they can reach their full potential. In fact, many of the best practices that will improve outcomes for students with disabilities also improve the educational experience of all students when employed schoolwide. We should all care about this, whether or not our own family has a special-education student.

As education champions, we are taking on this issue by working with longtime special-education advocates and experts in the new Investing in Student Potential coalition to help families across Washington advocate for legislative changes. In our state, we push out students with disabilities. Suspensions and expulsions are 2.5 times higher for students with disabilities. Students of color with disabilities are disciplined at even higher rates and confront language and/or cultural barriers to accessing special-education services and effective communication with schools. Our dropout rate for students with disabilities is one of the nation’s highest, while our inclusion rate is one of the nation’s lowest. This is not acceptable, and we ask you to join us in calling on our elected leaders to ensure that every student in Washington has access to educational supports — so that they may be successful in school, at work and in life.

The good news is that the Legislature can take the first steps to fix this problem sooner rather than later with a more effective approach to how local education agencies receive funds for special-education students. Our principles for lawmakers to consider as they craft an effective approach to improving special education begin with:

  • A funding formula that recognizes and resources the specific and varied assets and needs of students with disabilities.
  • A system that distributes funding equitably, ensuring that local education agencies with limited or no access to local levy money, such as small districts, rural districts and charter public schools, can effectively serve their students.
  • Stronger training and supports for educators.
  • Improvements to how services are delivered to students and families.

We look forward to working with champions for students during this year’s legislative session and beyond. Every child deserves access to a basic education in our state — special education students included.