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How Washington lawmakers are looking to improve K-12 special education

By Grace Deng, Washington State Standard
Published: February 22, 2024, 2:54pm

Washington House lawmakers this week advanced three proposals meant to increase special education funding and make it easier for parents of children with disabilities to hold schools accountable for failing to provide adequate services.

The bills come as lawmakers again look to increase the percentage of a district’s population that can receive extra dollars for special education services. Under current law, the state only provides additional funding for up to 15% of a district’s student population. House lawmakers want to raise that figure to 17.25%, but whether that happens will depend on budget negotiations with the Senate in the days ahead. The Senate’s initial budget plan included a bump to 15.6%.

The three bills making progress in the House have already passed through the Senate, all on unanimous votes.

Parental complaints

Under federal law, every child eligible for special education must receive an individualized education plan, or IEP, that outlines a child’s accommodations and services. Parents who believe a school is not following a child’s IEP or meeting federal and state civil rights requirements can request what’s known as a special education due process hearing.

Senate Bill 5883 would shift the burden of proof in these hearings from parents to the school district. Right now, parents are expected to use their own resources to fight these cases — sometimes without access to a lawyer — and it can be a particularly arduous experience for families with limited English proficiency. “This is a matter of basic equity and justice,” said Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, co-sponsor of the House version of the bill.

Two Republicans voted against advancing the bill through the House Education Committee. Rep. Travis Couture, R-Spokane — who voted for the bill — said several members of his party wanted more time to review the bill’s language. Couture introduced a broader bill with a similar proposal, but it died in House Appropriations.

Additional funding for districts

Senate Bill 5852 looks to streamline the process districts go through to receive extra money when their special education populations exceed the 15% cap.

Right now, if a district needs more money than the state has allocated for special education, they can apply for what’s known as “safety net funding” through the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Safety Net Oversight Committee. A district may apply if they have students with more costly needs or if their district’s population of special education students exceeds 15%.

But the application process takes time — up to 40 hours — and some districts, particularly smaller and less affluent ones, have stopped applying because they simply don’t have the staff available, according to school officials who testified in a Feb. 14 hearing. Small, easy-to-make errors can result in denied applications and cost districts thousands of dollars, which means sometimes it’s cheaper for a district to opt-out, even if they need the money, officials said.

“There’s no reason why a safety net application for our neediest students should be rejected because a school district simply failed to put a comma where it should have been,” said Charlie Brown, a lobbyist for South Sound Superintendents.

SB 5852 would reduce paperwork, ensure districts aren’t penalized for small errors and limit the number of reasons the Safety Net Oversight Committee can deny an application. It’ll also require the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to conduct a survey of smaller school districts and use that feedback to make a standard process for all safety net applications.

The bill advanced unanimously out of House Education on Tuesday.

Requesting federal funding

State lawmakers are also looking to the federal level for help with special education funding. But their legislation on this front is a non-binding request and getting any additional federal dollars would require action by Congress.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, known as IDEA, authorizes Congress to fund up to 40% of the average per-pupil expenditure for special education. Federal funding as of last year was at less than 13%, according to the National Association of Elementary School Principals. Data compiled by the National Education Association, a union representing educators, shows the figure has dropped over the last two decades.

Education leaders describe this as a long-unfulfilled promise.

Senate Bill 8007 would ask Congress to fund special education in Washington up to 40%.

The state wouldn’t struggle as much to fund special education if the federal government was hitting the 40% funding mark, said Rep. Monica Stonier, a Vancouver Democrat and an instructional coach in Evergreen Public Schools. “This is the most egregious unfunded mandate I think we are facing in the public school system at this point,” she said.

Two Republicans voted against advancing the bill through the House Education Committee. Rep. Skyler Rude, R-Walla Walla — who voted for the bill — said members of his party were concerned the request was not the best approach, given that it’s unenforceable and IDEA was enacted in 1990. “Many of the members of Congress that would have potentially made this promise are no longer in Congress,” Rude said.

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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.