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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

New Washington budget boosts money for special education programs

FILE – The Spokane Public Schools administration building photographed in 2017. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane Public Schools will get roughly $3 million extra for special education students thanks to a change in state funding.

When the Legislature unveiled the state budget two weeks ago, it changed a cap on how much money the state pays districts for special education services. Since 1995, state funding has been capped at 12.7 percent of a district’s full-time enrollment.

Now that cap has been raised to 13.5 percent.

According to Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction data statewide, 13.5 percent of all students qualified for special education in 2015-16. The increase means the state will provide an additional $68.4 million toward special education services over the course of four years, according to OSPI.

The increase wasn’t expected by administrators and special education advocates.

“I was actually kind of surprised myself,” said Linda McDermott, Spokane’s chief financial officer. “Pleasantly surprised.”

Stacy Gillet, director of the King County ARC, a disabilities advocacy group, pushed for the removal of the cap. In an email, she called the change a “step forward” but one that doesn’t “completely solve the problem.”

Katherine George, a lawyer who filed amicus briefs in the McCleary v. State of Washington lawsuit on behalf of a number of special education advocacy groups, said raising the cap is good, but not enough.

“There shouldn’t be any cap,” she said. “It’s better to have 13.5 percent than 12.7 percent, but the special education advocates wanted no cap at all.”

According to Gillet, 90 districts statewide, including Spokane Public Schools, have special education student populations larger than 13.5 percent. In Spokane Public Schools, the special education rate is about 14.5 percent.

Cheney School District Superintendent Robert Roettger said the change will “definitely help close that gap.” It’s not clear how much more money the increased cap will provide the district, Roettger said. According to OSPI data, 14.8 percent of Cheney’s students qualified for special education services in 2016-17.

In 2015-2016, the Cheney School District spent about $1.1 million in local levy funds on special education programs, Roettger said.

Locally, several districts have special education populations higher than the new cap, including East Valley (14.6 percent), Nine Mile Falls School district (16 percent), Riverside School District (16.2 percent), Cheney (14.8 percent) and Orchard Prairie (12.9 percent).

Doug Gill, the former assistant superintendent for special education at OSPI, didn’t believe the cap should be raised. He worried that could encourage districts to over-report their special education populations. Instead, he argued in an interview in late June that the multiplier – a number used to determine how much more money special education students receive per pupil, is too low. Gill retired last month.

Chris Reykdal, the state superintendent of education, hoped that the Legislature would increase the multiplier and increase the amount of safety net funds available. While the increase in the cap will help, he said, it’s not a final fix. Unlike Gill, he isn’t worried that districts will over-report as long as proper audits are conducted.

And, ultimately, he believes any cap is unconstitutional.

“Every student is entitled to a basic education free of cost,” he said.

He added, “If it’s more than 13.5 percent of students who need it in a district, it seems crazy that we have a cap.”