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Special-ed needs the attention of lawmakers

As lawmakers head into a third special session, it’s unclear what will become of education funding in Washington state. But special education advocates are especially concerned because neither the House nor the Senate budgets provides for funding that fully covers costs.

Funding levels for special education services are shaped by two metrics: a cap and a multiplier. Neither one may reflect the reality of particular school districts.

Under the cap, special education services are funded at 12.7 percent of a district’s full-time enrollment. If that isn’t enough, tough. Often it isn’t. Special-education enrollment in 120 school districts exceeds the 12.7 percent enrollment mark, including Spokane Public Schools, which is at about 14 percent.

The Arc of Washington State says 8,688 students statewide aren’t funded, according to a court brief it filed in the McCleary lawsuit on basic education.

Doug Gill, the state’s assistant superintendent for special education, told The Spokesman-Review that the real problem is that the multiplier is too low. This is the metric that determines how much extra money is needed per special education student. The current multiplier was set 22 years ago and doesn’t reflect increased special education costs since then.

Senate Bill 5432 would increase the multiplier, but the bill hasn’t passed. If it were adopted, school districts would get an additional $140 million, which matches what they currently spend from local levy dollars to make up for the shortfall. That’s money districts could be spending in other areas.

Obviously, Spokane Public Schools would like to see the cap raised, because it puts them at a disadvantage. On the other hand, the statewide enrollment average for special education students is 11.92 percent, so 12.7 percent works for most districts. As Gill pointed out, lifting the cap altogether would “overincentivize” special education enrollment. Before the cap was affixed, special education budgets grew faster than general education budgets.

Nonetheless, there ought to be a way to find a realistic funding method, whether it’s adjusting the cap, the multiplier or both. The realities of 1995 are different from those in 2017. The prevalence of special education students has increased as has the commitment to educating them.

The consequences of inadequate funding show up in school every day. Last year, nearly one-quarter of special education students missed at least 18 days of school. When at school, they’re more apt to require disciplinary measures. This isn’t fair to students, parents or teachers.

Parents who struggle to get special education services instead get phone calls to come pick up their children. The sad reality is that they aren’t surprised. For some, it’s not the first call, and they know it won’t be the last. For the parent featured in Thursday’s Spokesman-Review article, it was the 15th time her son was sent home. It’s the seventh school he’s attended.

In fact, nobody should be surprised, because it’s an inevitable consequence of a formula that lawmakers know will come up short.

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