Give state lawmakers a B for solid effort. But on meeting their obligation to fully fund education for 158,000 students with special needs, Washington isn’t there yet.
Two proposed bills moving through the House and Senate differ in how to pay for special education. And while the legislators involved should be commended for gaining ground, neither bill entirely solves the problem.
State Rep. Gerry Pollet’s House Bill 1436, would gradually lift the cap the state places on school districts, which currently allows only 13.5% of students to receive extra funding for services like speech therapy, instructional aides and smaller classes. In Pollet’s bill, that cap would be gone by 2027-28. The total additional cost for fully funding special education and removing the cap: $1.3 billion over two years, on top of the $2 billion we’re already spending.
Number crunchers blanched at this figure, kicking the can down the road. But if the state is going to remove the cap, why take two full budget cycles to do it? Five years from now, thousands of kids who would benefit will already be done with school.
State Sen. Lisa Wellman, in contrast, suggests tackling the problem by tweaking funding formulas now to provide much more money upfront for identified special-needs students — to the tune of $303 million over the next two years. But Senate Bill 5311 keeps a lid on how many students can be eligible, raising the rate to 15% of a district’s population and freezing it there.
Wellman’s approach closely mirrors what Gov. Jay Inslee proposed several months ago. But it’s offensive to families trying to ensure that their kids get the services they are entitled to under Washington’s constitution, which guarantees an ample education for all students. More than half of Washington’s 295 school districts are already above the 13.5% cap.
It would be unacceptable to say that Washington can only cover education for 13.5% of students of color, parent Devony Audet pointed out to budget writers on the House Appropriations Committee. Audet has three children attending school in Spokane, where 18% of students have been identified as having special needs.
Erica Hieggelke of Seattle underscored this point: “Any funding cap promotes the idea that disabled students do not deserve the same education as their peers,” she told the House budget committee.
Today, the gap between what the state pays for special-needs kids and what their education actually costs is about $500 million, according to the Office of Public Instruction. Who fills this hole? Local taxpayers, through levies, which are supposed to pay for enrichment, not basic education.
Moreover, not all communities can come up with that extra money. In rural districts with a limited tax base, special education costs are especially onerous, like in Sultan, where 17% of students have special needs. In Ocean Beach, it’s 22%.
Many states limit spending on special education. But only four others — Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon and Utah — use a flat cap like Washington.
Rep. Pollet calls this both “unconstitutional as well as unconscionable.” He is particularly worried that certain children — like those whose parents are unable to advocate for them — never get identified for the services they need.
“I will go to the mat to get rid of this cap,” Pollet said. “Providing for their education is a matter of civil rights.”
We couldn’t agree more. But it needs to happen now.
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