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News / Northwest

Required recess, special education funding among changes approved by Washington lawmakers

By Vanessa Ontiveros, , Yakima Herald-Republic, Wash. (TNS),
Published: May 19, 2023, 1:15pm

OLYMPIA — With the 2023 legislative session wrapped up, a handful of educational bills made it through.

Some of the biggest changes include more money for special education and reducing fees for dual-credit classes, which state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal highlighted as priorities last fall.

A new law will require schools to screen all kids when looking for highly capable students. And recess is now required for elementary school students, codifying into law what is already the norm in most local schools.

Here’s a look at how these bills could impact Yakima County schools, students and families.

More money for special education

The Legislature and governor approved significant changes to the special education funding formula which will mean more money for these services in school. The bill increased the funding multipliers that determine how much money schools receive for special education services. And it bumped up the maximum amount of funding districts can receive.

Currently schools receive state funding for up to 13.5% of the student population receiving special education services. This law increased that cap to 15%.

Grandview School District Special Services Director BJ Wilson said this funding change will likely not cause schools to provide “more” special education services. The process for identifying a student as needing these services is thorough and involves the creation of an Individualized Education Program. IEPs are legal documents that outline the instruction a student needs. Schools are already required to provide those services.

“We’re providing services that meet the needs of the students now, but I think it would definitely deepen our services,” he said.

Yakima School District Finance Director Jake Kuper said the district will receive about $1 million more for special education funding through this bill. He anticipated much of that money will go toward maintaining salary and benefit levels for special education staff.

Kuper said local funds cover about 26% of special education services in YSD. The state covers about 65% and about 9% comes from federal funds. For the districts as a whole, local funds are generally around 10% of the budget, with state funds making up a larger percentage. Kuper said it’s common for Washington districts to cover more of special education through local funds.

Required recess

Starting next year, elementary school students will be entitled to at least 30 minutes of recess under a new law.

Senate Bill 5257, which was signed by the governor on May 4, outlines best practices for recess. Elementary students must receive 30 minutes of recess each school day that lasts longer than five hours.

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School staff must supervise recess, which should take place outdoors when possible. Schools should promote physical activity and games during recess and limit use of technological devices during this time.

Existing state law considers recess instructional time and advises schools against withholding recess as a form of punishment.

Officials with most Yakima County school districts said their elementary students already receive at least 30 minutes of recess each day.

The law makes recess a protected time. Recess time has been declining in recent decades, despite childhood health experts touting its benefits. Research shows recess improves physical health, improves memory, decreases in-class disruptions and supports students’ social and emotional development.

Highly capable screenings

Schools will have to screen all students twice to see if they may benefit from highly capable services under a new state law. Screenings must happen in or before second grade and again in or before middle school.

Highly capable students are students who demonstrate academic aptitude beyond their cohort in some way. Students may be identified as highly capable in one subject area, like math or reading, or multiple areas.

Wendy Clark, the coordinator for West Valley School District’s highly capable program coordinator, said the program is needs based and serves students who require special instruction in order to thrive.

Sometimes teachers of family members refer students to highly capable services. But that inevitably leaves out some of the student population, Clark said. That’s why universal highly capable screenings have been in place in WVSD for years.

“It’s been best practice for a very long time,” Clark said. “But now it’s mandated so I’m happy about that.”

The majority of West Valley’s highly capable students were identified through universal screening, according to data provided by Clark. She said that their screening practices combined with identifying students who are highly capable in single areas helped explain their high percentage of highly capable students.

During the 2022-23 school year, 6.8% of students statewide were considered highly capable, according to data from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. In West Valley, that number was 10.9%. In the Yakima School District, the area’s largest, 2.5% of students were considered highly capable.

Arnie Lewis, who took over the YSD highly capable program last year, said the district began screenings for all its second graders this year. He said the decision was made to promote equity in the identification process.

He said that with the new screening practices, he expects the percentage of students identified as highly capable to increase to around 4%, which is where is was before the pandemic.

Eliminating dual-credit fees

Last year, Reykdal announced one of his top priorities was to remove financial barriers for dual-credit options, which allow students to earn both high school and graduation credit through one class. A recently-passed bill will eliminate the fees for one dual-credit option.

College in the High School courses are college-level classes taught to high schoolers for college credit. Students may have to pay up to $65 per college credit. The state provides some funding for these courses, but that funding is prioritized for students in upper grades and only covers up to 10 credits.

A law signed by Gov. Jay Inslee on May 4 eliminates fees for College in the High School classes.

Zillah High School Principal Jeff Charbonneau advocated for the bill. He said the change will open doors to those who could not previously afford the fees. The courses cost a lot less for students and the state than courses in a typical university setting.

“This is just a fantastic win, and really I believe is going to change how we think about providing a college education for students moving forward,” he said.

ZHS has begun registering students for classes for next school year. Charbonneau said the school has already seen increased interest in College in the High School classes.

He said when students take these college classes, it proves to them that they have what it takes to succeed in college.

“That feeling of self worth is immeasurable,” he said.

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