By Joel Aune / For The Herald
School districts across the state of Washington are currently budgeting for the new school year, with many facing enormous financial challenges. A good portion of the financial challenge can be traced to the ongoing funding shortfall for special education.
Public schools have state and federal obligations to serve all students with disabilities, regardless of costs for program and services. By law, districts are required to develop individualized education plans in concert with the student, their family and staff to chart out the program and services necessary to meet that child’s basic education needs. The funding that districts currently receive for special education is far short of what they are required to spend. Without adequate state resources, districts are left to make up the difference with local levy dollars to supplement their spending on required special education services. As a result, many districts are looking at major cuts to other programs for next year as they deal with these special education funding shortfalls.
Despite reducing operating costs, including the elimination of basic education staff positions, solving the special education funding deficit is a persistent problem for districts large and small. It appears many are facing uncertain financial futures if funding for special education is not increased. It is a worrisome trend that amplifies the acute needs of districts fulfilling their special education programming obligations to serve the students in their care.
To address this challenge at the state level, school administrators have made a concerted effort this legislative session to advocate for an increase in the state portion of special education funding. We recognize that over the past four years, the Legislature has provided some additional funding for special education services through various means. And while these incremental measures have narrowed the gap between what the state pays and what local districts pay for special education, it is still not nearly enough.
Just prior to the 2023 Legislative Session, state Superintendent Chris Reykdal came forward with House Bill 1436, an $803 million request for special education funding. Now, at the midpoint of the legislative session, the current version of the bill would provide just $168 million in 2023-25. The Senate budget released Thursday would allocate $372 million for special education services. However, neither bill provides what districts actually need, which is a complete and ongoing solution to the special education funding problem in our state.
We applaud Superintendent Reykdal for his efforts to set the record straight on special education funding. He has unabashedly called out state funding caps on special education as “a borderline violation of civil rights, and perhaps an explicit one.” We fully agree, and hope that legislators will find a way to resolve this chronic funding issue without something that rivals the 2007 McCleary lawsuit. In light of the Legislature’s current stance on special education funding, however, that kind of action may be necessary to resolve our special education funding shortfall and fully meet the needs of the students in our schools.
Until the Legislature and the governor are prepared to address the special education funding shortfall, school districts will continue to struggle in their obligation to serve students with disabilities. The special education funding deficit is now a full-blown crisis, as many districts will be forced to make deep and painful reductions in other areas to meet requirements for special education in the next two years.
It took a landmark lawsuit over the course of 11 years to finally hold the Legislature accountable to its paramount duty; the full funding of public education. Special education is both a legal obligation and a moral imperative. The current state of special education funding is a civil rights violation.
Let’s hope our elected Legislature steps up with a serious and substantive commitment to special education funding in this session. Or maybe the next civil rights battle is already underway.
Joel Aune is the executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators.
Correction: The amount allocated in the Senate budget for special education was incorrect in an earlier version of this commentary, caused by an editing error. The Senate budget allocates $372 million.
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