Special Education in Washington State

specialeducationprogram2The McCleary case currently before the Washington Supreme Court is a landmark case of substantial importance that will have lasting impact on our state’s public education system, addressing the long-outdated system of funding for ALL children in our public schools. This is a critical time to raise the issues that face students with disabilities every day in our public schools.  Students with disabilities are seated squarely in the “opportunity gap” by any measure – including low graduation rates, high rates of disciplinary action including suspension and expulsion for behavior related to their disability, low rates of inclusion and high rates of isolation, use of restraint in classrooms, and low rates of employment and access to post-secondary training after graduation.

The Arc of King County joined with The Arc of Washington and other advocates for children with disabilities in filing an Amicus Brief in McCleary v State of Washington to bring attention to these concerns. This is the first Amicus Brief in the landmark school-funding case to focus on special education. An amicus is a “friend of the court” legal brief that offers a unique perspective or new set of facts for the court to consider.  Courts usually only hear testimony and consider evidence from those witnesses presented by the parties and an amicus brief brings additional attention to important information that the court may not have received during trial.

As cited in the brief, “More than 125,000 students in Washington have disabilities requiring special education. For a fair chance to succeed, these children must have special instruction designed to meet their individual needs,” adding, “the Legislature has paid for special education as if every student needs the same funding, instead of fully funding the actual costs of properly educating children with disabilities.”

The Supreme Court has been imposing sanctions of $100,000 a day against the State until it adopts a complete plan for complying with its constitutional duty to fully finance basic education. The State has asked for the sanctions to be lifted, but an analysis by Arc of Washington found serious special education funding gaps, thus denying part of basic education accessibility. For example, new state data shows:

  • The State allocates money to districts assuming 12.7 percent of each district’s student population in Kindergarten through 12th grade are enrolled in special education. However, at least 120 school districtscurrently have a greater percentage of special education students than the State pays for;
  • Large districts such as Seattle and Spokane spend millions of dollars more on special education than the State provides, using local tax levies to make up for the wide discrepancy between actual costs and State allocations.

Special education falls within the Legislature’s definition of “basic education,” which must provide broad educational opportunities and prepare all children to be self-supporting citizens. The Amicus Brief explains that the Legislature has overlooked the special needs of children with disabilities in planning funding reforms. In addition, the brief cites concerns that the current state budget grossly underfunds paraeducators, who provide nearly 60% of direct instruction to special education students in Washington State.

“When it comes to funding basic education, children with disabilities have the greatest needs, and their voice must be heard when determining if the ‘paramount duty’ to fully fund education has been met,” said Katherine George, of counsel, Harrison-Benis LLP and author of the Amicus Brief.

The Arc of King County and The Arc of Washington are excited to take this bold step toward ensuring that students with disabilities have equitable opportunities to be included and access all of the same programs and services other children enjoy in our public schools with the same chances to achieve and succeed in their learning.

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