Education

State increases money for special education, but it’s not enough, school officials say

Special education activist Jennifer Pellegrini talks about inclusion

Special education activist and mother of two school-aged special needs children, Jennifer Pellegrini talks about inclusion in the classroom and funding of special education. February 1, 2019
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Special education activist and mother of two school-aged special needs children, Jennifer Pellegrini talks about inclusion in the classroom and funding of special education. February 1, 2019

As school districts struggle to make sense of what the Legislature’s new budget means for their finances, they know one thing for sure: They’re not getting close to what they asked for to fund special education.

It would take around $235 million more a year just to break even with the amount school districts spend on education for students with disabilities, according to last year’s data from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The deal struck by lawmakers last month would only add around $155 million for the next two years.

Throughout the session, lawmakers made continued promises to close the gap in funding. In late March, Senate budget writer Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, announced there would be $400 million more for special education in the next two-year budget.

That never materialized, and neither did many of the policy reforms parents and advocates fought for, including more family involvement in special-education placements and a program that would highlight schools and districts where students with disabilities have better outcomes.

Lawmakers said they were finally going to deal with an age-old problem: outcomes for students with disabilities. Washington’s schools keep students with disabilities out of general education classrooms more often than their peers in other states.

This segregation, experts say, leads to poor results. During the 2014-2015 school year, the Evergreen State had some of the nation’s highest dropout rates for special-education students.

The budget includes $25 million to fund professional development that will help teachers integrate their classrooms.

“What they did was really powerful progress on special education,” said state Superintendent Chris Reykdal. “We still think there’s room to go.”

Special education funding comes from state, federal and local sources — and the state manages it through a complicated thicket of equations.

To boost state funds over the next few years, lawmakers added money to two main pots of special-education dollars.

The first is driven by student enrollment. Generally, for each special-needs student, the state pays districts the amount of funding each general-education student is allotted — plus 96 percent of that figure. The degree of that boost is known as a multiplier.

For example, a school district may receive $3,000 per student, but for every special-needs student, the district would collect an extra $2,900 to pay for supports and services.

In the new budget, lawmakers created two slightly higher multipliers. The first is a 99.5 percent boost per student, and the second is just a little over 100 percent.

The higher multiplier is reserved for students who spend more than 80 percent of their day in the general-education classroom — financial incentive to reduce the high number of classrooms that are segregated by ability.

Known as the safety net, it tries to capture a portion of special-education funding need that is harder to gauge: extremely costly services for students with exceptional needs, such as placement in a residential facility. Districts pay the bill upfront, and then apply for reimbursement from the safety net fund.

For 2020, lawmakers more than doubled safety net funds from $35 million to $71 million, and made it easier for districts to qualify for reimbursement. (The application process was notoriously thorny.)

Since safety net money isn’t dispersed until the school year after it is requested, school districts aren’t sure how much they’ll get from the bigger pot. But they know the money from the multiplier increase won’t be enough.

Seattle Public Schools and others say they will continue using money from their local levies to subsidize special education.

“There won’t be a choice,” said JoLynn Berge, SPS chief finance officer.

That could present a problem for districts trying to adhere to new rules over how to spend their local levy dollars, which will be subject to a review by the state auditor.

In its response to the court-ordered overhaul of the state’s education funding model two years ago, known as the McCleary fix, the state intended to stop the practice of using local levies to fund basic-education costs, a category that includes special education.

Reykdal, the state schools chief — whose office creates school accounting rules — said special education would be an exception.

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