Our state legislators must figure out a way to “make ample provision” for educating all our children. Washington’s courts have ruled that:
• The state must define and fully fund basic education.
• Basic education includes both general education and special education.
• Special voter levies cannot be required to fund any part of basic education.
Special education programs are a significant part of the state’s budget. Local school districts prepare Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and play the primary role in determining what the state’s funding formula should be.
According to recent data, approximately 124,000 students in Washington’s 295 school districts receive special education and related services. These services might include: specially equipped vans and buses (with seat belts, wheelchair lifts, additional staffing), rooms equipped with specialized play equipment, kitchens for learning life skills, etc., access to staff speech therapists, occupational therapists and/or physical therapists.
And the list goes on: much smaller class sizes during all or part of the day (with additional certificated teachers and/or paraprofessionals), field trips during the school day for swimming lessons, visits to grocery stores, and so on — all with the goal of helping each child become a competent and contributing member of society.
Schools may also be required to provide transitional bilingual and other services.
The state special education formula allocates money for children with disabilities from birth through age 21. There is an additional safety net provision that aims to provide supplementary funding for districts demonstrating a need beyond formula amounts. For students in the K-12 category, the allocation is a maximum of 12.7 percent of a district’s total K-12 full time equivalent (FTE) enrollment.
I think that for too long there has been a denial of what it really costs to educate all students.
In 2002-03, total special education revenue from state and federal sources, including safety net awards, was $595.7 million. Total expenditures were $775.9 million, resulting in a funding shortfall of $180.2 million, or 30.3 percent.
For many districts, the number of students who require an Individualized Education Program far exceeds the 12.7 percent of their population that the state designates.
When it comes to money, the federal government also plays a role, via the Federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It mandates that children with disabilities and their families have free access to appropriate public education. Data from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction show that IDEA funds were awarded in two categories. For children with disabilities, federal dollars reported for 2012-13 were: Olympia — $1,844,148, North Thurston — $2,639,214, Tumwater $1,189,095, and Tacoma — $6,691,234. Of course, the other 291 districts in our state also receive federal disability funding.
And, just as we face the reality of providing for the needs of special education students, we should work to ensure that we do our best for everyone.
As appealing as early childhood education is, for example, there isn’t enough money to actually pay for all the proposals on the table. We can decide that educating 4-year-olds is of crucial importance, but we shouldn’t do it at the expense of 14-year-olds.
Does it make sense to lump older students into ever-larger classes in order to pay for younger students?
If our state decides to implement universal preschool and/or all-day kindergarten, policy makers will need to identify huge new piles of money to pay for the additional staffs, classrooms, buses, etc. (The Olympia School District has just decided to provide all-day kindergarten at its two poorest schools, and this seems like a perfect example of local, targeted decision-making.)
The bottom line: This is not a time for magical thinking. It’s a time for fact-finding. A phone call from a legislator to a school superintendent in his or her district would be time well spent.
We can’t do everything we’d like to do, but we can still do some things really well. Let’s start there.