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Saturday, September 30, 2023
Sept. 30, 2023

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Inslee axes special education study, drawing bipartisan rebuke


As the state prepares to boost funding for special education by $400 million in the next two years, the governor has angered lawmakers in both parties by nixing a study to see if students are receiving the services they are entitled to.

Lawmakers wanted a performance audit of Washington’s system of providing special education to students with disabilities.

They directed the state auditor and the legislative auditor to jointly carry out the comprehensive review. They sought a comparison of Washington’s funding model to those in other states. And they desired to know about both the adequacy of funding and the effectiveness of districts’ use of that money to serve students with special needs.

Legislators spelled out details for the audit in House Bill 1436 which passed unanimously in the House and Senate. They included $1.5 million apiece in the state budget for the Office of the State Auditor and the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee to cover their costs.

But Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed the audit section in the bill on May 11. He then axed funding for the state auditor’s share in the operating budget he signed Tuesday. He left money for the legislative auditor to do its portion.

“I’m really quite upset about it,” Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, the bill’s prime sponsor, said late Thursday. “The focus of this bill was the violation of civil rights of students with disabilities being denied special education services. It sets back the study of the inequities of who gets special education services. It makes no sense.”

Republican leaders weren’t happy either. Their caucuses pushed hard for injecting more dollars into special education and tracking them to ensure they led to improved outcomes for students.

House Minority Leader Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, said he was “disappointed and frustrated but also surprised.”

“We received no notice from the governor,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, said in a statement that Inslee has “talked a lot about trusting data these last few years. So how is it that he eliminated a performance audit that would have gathered data about the current state of special education funding?”

“The findings would have helped the state spend millions in new funding where it’s needed most,” he continued. “Special education services have been chronically underfunded and the best way to ensure the needs of these children are met is to find out how we are failing them now.”

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Inslee’s concern centered on a paragraph of the four-page section prescribing the components to be covered in the performance audit. This subsection granted the state auditor access to a variety of student records it would not otherwise be legally entitled to receive.

“This provision conflicts with policies that favor the protection of student records and individual student privacy, without a corresponding need for that confidential, personal Information,” Inslee wrote in his veto message for the legislation.

On Thursday, an Inslee spokesperson said the governor’s objection was solely to language in the subsection outlining record access. Governors are not able to veto subsections, only full sections, thus leading to the audit program’s total veto, the spokesperson said.

“It makes no logical sense,” Pollet said.

The Washington Education Research and Data Center suggested the wording, he said. And, he added, the executive branch never brought it up as the bill moved through the process.

Stokesbary said the “veto message rang hollow.”

Auditors are perfectly capable of developing results that can be made public without identifying families and children, he said.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said Thursday he was “comfortable with the way the bill was passed.” His agency would have been required to provide records to the state auditor.

“If the Legislature wants to bring it back we would be supportive,” he said. “I am really comfortable with the state auditor.”

Inslee’s actions don’t completely scuttle the data-gathering effort.

Pollet is chair of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee, a bipartisan, bicameral panel. He said the money left in the budget will allow committee staff to look into funding formulas and tracking the state dollars.

But the crux of the audit was to figure out who is getting services, who is not, and how funding factors into those gaps.

“The governor vetoed a study that is vital for advancing equity in special education,” Pollet said. “If the state auditor cannot review student records then the state auditor cannot hold school districts and OSPI accountable for not serving the most vulnerable population.”

The Washington State Standard is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet that provides original reporting, analysis and commentary on Washington state government and politics. We seek to keep you informed about Washington’s most pressing issues, the decisions elected leaders are making, how they are spending tax dollars and who is influencing public policy.