Politics & Government

Education chief: state is failing to meet the needs of special education students

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

The problems plaguing the public education of children with disabilities are stark in Washington state.

About 140,000 students with disabilities attend public schools in Washington. Of those, 54 percent are in general education classrooms for 80 percent or more of the school day. That makes Washington state among the most restrictive in the nation, trailing 42 other states. The national average is 63 percent. For students of color in Washington state, the figure drops to 47 percent.

Federal law requires that students with disabilities be educated to the maximum extent possible with students without disabilities. Many special ed students who are segregated in self-contained classrooms or separate schools don’t have access to the same academic and extracurricular activities and services provided to other students, according to the National Council on Disability, a federal agency.

Washington’s high school graduation rate of special education students also has lagged behind several states. That rate for the class of 2018 was 62 percent in Washington, compared to 81 percent of all students graduating within four years.

In addition, school district officials from across Washington have said the gap between the cost of educating special ed students and state funding is $308 million a year.

“We are a system that’s failing to meet the needs of kids with disabilities,” said Chris Reykdal, state Superintendent of Public Instruction.

As part of his proposed 2019-21 budget, Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed a major change to the formula that determines how much school districts receive to educate special ed students.

By factoring in more detailed data about how special ed students are taught, the new formula would do a better job of targeting funds to individual student needs, said Glenna Gallo, the state’s assistant superintendent for special education.

The new formula also would provide more funding for districts that include special ed students in general ed classrooms longer — referred to as “inclusion” — and enable them to offer more costly programs that have demonstrated results.

Jim Crawford is assistant director with the state Office of Financial Management, which makes budget recommendations to the governor.

Under Inslee’s plan, the new formula and the additional funding would be phased in over six years so the state and school districts could evaluate and likely fine-tune such a large change, Crawford said.

“It is absolutely time to get started,” Crawford said in an email.

The governor’s blueprint has spurred debate among education groups.

Advocates for students with disabilities say the changes, which are in HB 5312, would begin to move the state in the right direction but not quickly enough, said Lorrell Noahr, a lobbyist for the Washington Education Association, which represents teachers statewide.

“We appreciate the policy intent to increase the inclusion of special ed students in the general classroom. However, a solution is needed now and not in six years,” Noahr recently told the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee.

Under federal law, students qualify for special education if they are in one of 13 categories — such as being autistic or having intellectual disabilities or speech or language impairment — and their disability adversely affects their education performance.

Jennifer Pellegrini, a Graham resident who has two sons with special needs, said she wants to see the system reformed to improve education for students with disabilities across Washington state.

“It’s their civil right. We are talking about a vulnerable population: children with disabilities who want to go to school and get an appropriate education. The fact that they are treated differently because of a disability is violating their civil right. And that to me is embarrassing, shameful, sad, overwhelming,” Pellegrini said.

Inslee has asked lawmakers to boost spending on special ed from $2.2 billion in the current two-year operating budget to $3 billion in 2019-21.

The bulk of that increase reflects how special ed funding is linked to big increases in the general ed K-12 budget in the wake of the state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision. The ruling said the state violated its constitution by not providing enough funding for the K-12 system. As state spending increases in the K-12 general ed budget, which it has dramatically in recent years, it also increases for special education.

The phase-in of the new special ed formula would account for $94 million of the proposed increase — and is expected to total about $280 million over four years.

Sen. Lisa Wellman, a Mercer Island Democrat who is chairwoman of the education committee, said the state needs to spend more time speaking with parents about how the change in the funding formula would affect their children.

“I think we’ve heard consistently that there needs to be more money in special education. The question is, ‘How much and how?’” Wellman said.

For Tacoma Public Schools, the cost of educating special ed students is $8 million more than it receives in state funding. In Seattle, the gap is $70 million. Like several other districts, both are tapping levy funds to make up the difference, according to testimony to legislative committees.

Carla Santorno, superintendent of Tacoma Public Schools, said the district would support phasing in the additional state dollars through the revised special ed formula.

Santorno told lawmakers recently special education funding gap is tied to how the Legislature, as part of the McCleary fix, restricted the amount districts can collect from local levies. Public school officials are pushing the Legislature to take action this session to address those levy restrictions, saying they face steep budget shortfalls if lawmakers don’t approve fixes.

“We can’t continue to meet our federal obligation to fully fund special ed using local levy money if there’s no change to the levy formula,” Santorno told the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Ninety percent of special ed students have a typical IQ — meaning low average, average or high average — and less than 4 percent have significant cognitive disabilities, said Gallo, the state’s assistant superintendent for special education.

“The majority of students with disabilities have mild to moderate disabilities. By providing them effective general instruction with special education being in addition to, we should see them have similar graduation rates in the state. We should not see that gap,” she said.

“It disturbs me very much that of all states, we’re one of the worst states in terms of siloing children in special education,” Wellman said.

Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, said the proposed change in the special education funding formula has merit, but he questioned how it promotes educating more students with disabilities in general ed classrooms.

Braun said parents of special ed students often tell him it’s a “cultural issue,” as opposed to a financial one for school districts.

“I get told repeatedly it’s not that money is not an issue; it’s not the prime issue. It’s a cultural issue. It’s easier in the districts in some cases to create a special class; to not do inclusion because they get push back there,” he said.

Reykdal, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, said the proposed formula change is designed in part to drive more state funds to districts that include students with disabilities in general ed classrooms.

Sue Leusner, a Tacoma Public Schools parent who has a son with autism, formed the Tacoma Special Needs Parent Teacher Association in 2016. Leusner said federal law is clear that students with disabilities are entitled to a “free appropriate public education and there is no caveat if a school district can afford it.”

Leusner said she’s encouraged that the Legislature, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and school districts are working together to find a solution.

“But at the end of the day, the only people who suffer due to a lack of funding are the students,” she said.

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