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This article was produced with ProPublica as part of its Local Reporting Network initiative.

Washington state education officials are proposing to expand oversight of private schools for students with disabilities, citing a Seattle Times and ProPublica investigation that revealed that the state failed to intervene despite years of complaints about these schools.

The state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s request for new legislation, which will likely include a budget increase, appears to be welcomed by some lawmakers frustrated with the private special education schools, called “nonpublic agencies,” which accept public school children and tax dollars.

In its monthly special education bulletin, OSPI announced last week it was working on legislation that would expand the agency’s power over the specialty schools. The OSPI bulletin said The Seattle Times and ProPublica reports “show us that more changes are needed” in the system.

The news organizations found OSPI failed to address problems at the largest chain of such schools, the Northwest School of Innovative Learning, despite complaints from parents, school district administrators and others. Allegations against the school dating back to at least 2014 included unqualified aides struggling with a lack of curriculum, misuse of isolation rooms to manage student behavior and a staffer who repeatedly choked students.

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Northwest SOIL is owned by a subsidiary of Universal Health Services, one of the nation’s largest health care corporations. The school accepts only public funds for tuition and took in more than $38 million in taxpayer funds over the five school years ending in 2021.

State Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, said publicly funded private schools should be held to higher standards, including requirements for curriculum, certified staffing and special education teacher-to-student ratios.

“I think the reporting showed that they’re operating in their own legal black hole and that is not acceptable,” he said. “We need to have very clear requirements and consequences for nonpublic agencies.”

A representative from the school’s parent company said it had no comment in response to the state’s proposal. Previously, the company defended its program in a statement to the news organizations, writing that it takes students’ complex needs seriously. It denied that Northwest SOIL understaffed campuses and said its hiring practices ensure that “only appropriate and qualified candidates are hired.”

Public school districts across Washington outsource a small but very high-need segment of their special education population — about 500 students a year — to Northwest SOIL and about 60 other schools. These programs promise tailored therapy and instruction and, in the case of Northwest SOIL, can receive more than $68,000 per child.

While short on specifics, the state education department’s bulletin offered a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes efforts to improve special education before this legislative session, which begins Jan. 9 and lasts 105 days.

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The OSPI proposal seeks to improve the agency’s complaint investigations and monitoring of the private schools. It would also create new application and renewal requirements for programs seeking to contract with school districts and instruct the schools to collect student data and report it directly to the state.

Suzie Hanson, the executive director of the Washington Federation of Independent Schools, said private school educators are open to reporting restraint and isolation data and complaints directly to state officials. But it may require collaboration among multiple state agencies, she said. Though all nonpublic agencies are approved by OSPI, some are approved as private schools by the State Board of Education. Others, such as Northwest SOIL, are run by hospitals, which report to the Department of Health.

“I think together we can come up with legislation that would strengthen the communication and care for students with disabilities,” Hanson said. (Northwest SOIL is not a member of the trade group.)

The investigation by The Seattle Times and ProPublica, detailed in two stories published in the past three weeks, exposed a critical gap in the state’s oversight of such schools. Currently, the system places responsibility for monitoring the private schools not on the state but on individual school districts.

But that arrangement doesn’t address systemic issues at Northwest SOIL or other schools like it. More than 40 districts at a time send students to Northwest SOIL’s three campuses, and each district only receives information about its own students, so no single school district or agency has a complete picture of what’s going on there.

“I think the nonpublic agencies should be directly supervised by the OSPI, that there should be reporting directly to the OSPI and that OSPI should have authority to shut down and close schools based on their own observations and investigations,” said Mary Griffin, a special education attorney.

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OSPI already has the authority to revoke a nonpublic agency’s status, but the state has been reluctant to act, saying school districts are better positioned to spot and correct problems. Griffin said any new legislation should clearly spell out that OSPI has the duty to investigate problems and force changes at nonpublic agencies.

California law, for instance, requires the state Department of Education to visit and regularly monitor its specialty schools and to investigate if it receives evidence of “a significant deficiency in the quality of educational services” or if there is “substantial reason to believe that there is an immediate danger to the health, safety, or welfare of a child.”

The Times and ProPublica also reported that, unlike some other states, Washington requires just one special education teacher per nonpublic agency school, even though they serve some of the state’s highest-needs students.

Pollet, the state representative, is also spearheading a bill that would overhaul the state’s special education funding model, which has long been a source of contention in Washington state. Currently, the state funds special education services for up to 13.5% of a school district’s student population, regardless of how many students are eligible for services. It leaves school districts to pay the remainder of those education costs — or deny services to students, Pollet said.

The request would cost about $972 million between 2023 and 2025, according to OSPI, which recommended removing the 13.5% cap.

The Times and ProPublica series coincided with efforts by OSPI and advocates to curtail the misuse of restraint and isolation in both public and private schools. The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and Disability Rights Washington, another advocacy group, have been working on a report examining how restraint and isolation is used disproportionately on students of color, disabled students and others from marginalized communities, said Kendrick Washington, policy director at the ACLU of Washington. The groups’ report is expected early next year.

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Lawmakers, educators and advocates have been exploring alternatives to isolation and considering banning the practice in the state, Washington said.

An OSPI advisory committee has also been crafting recommendations on changes to restraint and isolation policy. Its report is set to be published later this month.

Sarah Snyder, who complained to state officials after her son Christopher was restrained and isolated at Northwest SOIL in 2017, said she was “cautiously optimistic” about OSPI’s request, noting that parents deserve more transparency from the schools.

“If there’s a problem, we need to know about it,” said Snyder, of Puyallup. “It makes me super happy that they’re finally taking action, but I hope they follow through.”