Despite much discussion about the issue in Washington, the phrase “special education” is a bit of a misnomer. In fact, special education is simply basic education, an essential part of the mandate to effectively teach all students in public schools.
As the preamble to Article IX of the state constitution says, “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.” Of course, arguments can be made over what constitutes “ample provision,” but it is evident that lawmakers have fallen short when it comes to students with special needs.
Fortunately, the Legislature appears to be focusing on the subject in the recently convened session. “There’s definitely a taste for really making special education a top priority,” said Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island and chair of the Senate’s education committee.
Overall, public school budgets use a combination of funding from the state — paid through property taxes — and local levies. The state pays for special education on a per-student basis, with a cap going into effect when more than 13.5 percent of a district’s students receive special education services.
As one education advocate told The Seattle Times: “Federal law, and state law, say that school districts must provide education to these students, and yet we’re making a choice to put a cap on how many disabled children are an acceptable number.” Indeed, the number is arbitrary, ignoring the reality of vast differences between districts.
The result, according to the state Office of Public Instruction, is that schools spend $400 million more than lawmakers provide each year on legally mandated special education services.
Those services range from speech therapy to academic assistance to full-time aides. It is expensive to provide constant one-on-one help for students who require it, but that has become a standard function of the effort to educate all students to the best of their ability. And that creates an untenable situation.
State Superintendent Chris Reykdal has requested $972 million over the next biennium for special education while asking the state to remove its 13.5 percent cap. Gov. Jay Inslee has recommended the cap be bumped to 15 percent and that $120 million be added to the state budget for young special-needs students.
But as Sarah Butcher, co-founder of an education advocacy group, said: “They’re treating it like a math problem. It’s not a math problem. It’s a system-design issue.”
In other words, the standard model for public schools was not designed with a large number of special-needs students in mind. It was designed at a time when such students were shunted aside by society, with little concern for their needs and little interest in their capabilities. Now, while increased attention to the needs of students represents progress, it also creates a financial burden for schools and a call for increased state funding.
Because of that, several bills in the Legislature take aim at special education. They are overdue.
When lawmakers put together a funding plan in 2018 to meet state Supreme Court mandates from the McCleary decision, advocates for special education immediately pointed out the shortcomings. Those shortcomings still demand attention, and it is encouraging that lawmakers appear prepared to emphasize the issue this year.
Teaching all students, after all, is a basic function of the state.