As the Superintendents of Thurston County school districts, we feel compelled to comment on the bills under consideration this legislative session for Special Education Funding. In 2018, the Legislature made a good faith effort to fix the broken education funding system that historically benefitted some districts and not others. While the eventual solution known as “the McCleary Fix” created its own set of winners and losers, it did result in significant increases for state funding for public education overall. However, what was clear to all at that time was the McCleary Fix did not address a key and critical part of our educational system, special education. Tackling the issue of fully funding services for our most vulnerable children was put off for another day.
OSPI Superintendent Reykdal has been clear about the urgency and size of the problem. Prior to this session he requested just under $1 billion from the Legislature over the next biennium to adequately address the need. There are two key structural flaws to the current model of funding special education that create this problem and make it worse each year.
Two key flaws to the current model
This year, we entered this legislative session filled with hope. We had heard suggestions and pledges that this would be the year in which this number one issue would finally be addressed. The original House Bill 1436, endorsed by the state Superintendent, was a significant piece of legislation that would have made huge strides in addressing the problem. Frustratingly, it was gutted just before it went to vote. The surviving Senate Bill SB 5311 is a modest step that will leave us dipping deeply into our local levies in Thurston County for the foreseeable future.
Until the Legislature and the Governor truly address the funding needed to properly serve students with disabilities, local school districts will be left to pilfer from other funding sources in their districts to meet their duty to serve all families. Other programs will be cut to cover the cost of something that is a paramount duty of the state. The Legislature has acknowledged that special education services fit in the definition of basic education. The Legislature also acknowledges that current bills will knowingly underfund special education by significant amounts. This is not meeting the paramount duty.
And therein lies the great worry we all have as district leaders in shining light on this issue. Our families with students with special needs should not be scapegoated into somehow being blamed for the fiscal strains being placed on our systems. Make no mistake about it, students with disabilities bring beauty, creativity, diversity, joy and immeasurable other contributions to our schools. Our learning communities would be lesser places in their absence.
It took six years in court to get to the McCleary decision. We hope another legal battle is not necessary. Our students and families can’t wait that long. The moral imperative is now.
Greg Woods, Superintendent, Griffin School District
Jennifer Bethman, EdD, Superintendent, Rochester School District 401
Debra J. Clemens, EdD, Superintendent, North Thurston Public Schools
Clint Endicott, Superintendent, Tenino School District
Patrick C. Murphy, EdD, Superintendent, Olympia School District
Carole Meyer, EdD, Superintendent, Tumwater School District
Bryon Bahr, Superintendent, Rainier School District
Brian Wharton, Superintendent, Yelm School District
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