We can’t afford to let another school year pass while special education students languish in a system that isn’t preparing them for a successful future.
Last year, more than 4,000 athletes from across the country traveled to Seattle to take part in the 2018 Special Olympics. It was the 50th anniversary of this remarkable showcase of talent and determination. The theme, “Rise with Us,” captured the importance of supporting the inclusion and acceptance of those with differing levels of ability.
It’s difficult for us, as state legislators, to reconcile the national spotlight that shone so brightly on persons with disabilities this past summer with the more recent local headlines that have raised serious and disheartening questions around special education.
The statistics are sobering. Washington is in the bottom 10 states when it comes to inclusion, meaning how often a student with disabilities is educated in a general classroom. Barely half of special-education students receive a diploma, which puts the state in the bottom one-fourth nationally, and 34 percent of students with disabilities dropped out of Washington schools in 2017. Only two other states reported higher dropout rates.
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We’ve heard from parents, students and school districts that providing more inclusive education will take additional funding, targeted at programs and practices that work. And we have a plan to address that.
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Senate Bill 5091 would change how the state calculates the amount of per-pupil funding received by a given school district. The net effect is that the allocation for each special-education student would be double what is received for other pupils. This would apply to students regardless of their living situation, so it would include homeless or incarcerated youth.
The bill also would allocate additional funding to schools with students whose needs warrant costlier, individualized education programs. This would free up federal funding the state is receiving for routing toward other services that also benefit students, such as professional learning for special-education teachers.
But parents of special-education students have also made it clear that funding is not their only interest when it comes to improving educational outcomes. They — and therefore, we — also support changes in the policies that guide investments made in special education.
A second bill, Senate Bill 5532, looks to ensure families are better supported. Local special-education advisory committees would be created in each school district to engage families and recognize their crucial role. Families would also receive access to advocates to help them navigate the special-education system.
Students would gain from the bill’s provisions that improve transition planning to support education and training opportunities after high school. The bill also provides all teachers — not just special-education teachers — with access to professional development, which will help support the use of best practices.
Finally, SB 5532 would encourage cooperative efforts to provide services across school districts, and recognize districts for reaching performance targets. We know great work is being done and want it to be replicated.
We can’t afford to let another school year pass while students with differing needs languish in a system that isn’t preparing them for a successful future. It’s our job as lawmakers to ensure that every student in Washington has a clear pathway to success, and that’s what this legislation is about. The Senate approved both bills unanimously, and we look forward to discussing their merits with our colleagues in the House of Representatives.
Let’s rise in support of special education and move this legislation forward.