Local school superintendents unite to demand action to fix special education funding


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

  • First, there is an arbitrary cap set by the state that will only provide funding to a school district as long as no more than 13.5% of the students are receiving special education services. So if a school district has 1,000 students, funding would be provided for 135 of them. If that district happened to have 160 students qualified for special services, 25 of them would not be funded. Every school district in Thurston County is above the 13.5% threshold and some significantly so. We have to turn to our local “enrichment” levies to pay for those services. Special Education is not “enrichment.” It is a federal law and a civil right. None of our school districts put up signs on our doors saying “No Vacancy” or “Sorry, Over Our Limit.” On the contrary, we welcome our families and their children gratefully. To not do so would be unconscionable.
  • The second defect in the funding system is something called the “multiplier.” The multiplier is used to increase funding for school districts for each student receiving special services. It is meant to cover the costs of any additional services for that child. Many of our students have extensive needs that require additional staffing, technology, medical care, curriculum and other supports that are not covered by the multiplier. As a result, overall, school districts again have to dip into their local enrichment levies to cover those costs. Thurston County school districts are forced to use millions of local levy dollars for special education that were never meant for that purpose.

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 WoodsSuperintendent, 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 WhartonSuperintendent, Yelm School District


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