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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Funding special education: Lawmakers, advocates look to patch budget shortfalls

Erin Carden says the lack of funding lead to her 16-year-old son being arrested and viololenty detained last year by a school resource officer. She arrived at his school and found him handcuffed, lying on his stomach with his shirt pulled up over his head. He was screaming "I want to die." The boy is diagnosed with ADHD, autism, and oppositional defiance disorder. She is photographed at her home in Spokane on Wednesday, June 21, 2017. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

When Erin Carden got the call, she wasn’t surprised. Her 16-year-old son wasn’t cooperating with teachers at Eagle Peak and had been suspended. Could she please come pick him up?

But the scene she walked into 10 minutes later was jarring nonetheless. The boy was lying on the floor, handcuffed. His shirt was pulled up over his shoulders, and he was repeatedly slamming his head into the floor.

“He kept on saying ‘I just want to kill myself. I just want to kill myself,’ ” Carden said.

That was the most extreme incident in a yearslong series of run-ins and altercations with school authorities, incidents Carden believes point to a systemic underfunding of special education.

“There are so many great teachers, and so much potential in this school district,” she said. “They need the resources to do something with that.”

“We can’t just put a whole bunch of policies in place and say these are the new rules and not put our money where our mouth is,” she added. “Otherwise, it’s just this punitive experience for teachers.”

A statewide issue

Carden’s son is diagnosed with mild autism, ADHD, anxiety and oppositional defiance disorder. During the 2015-16 school year, he was suspended, or otherwise sent home, nearly 30 times. This year, he was sent home 15 times. The boy was first arrested when he was 7 or 8 years old. He’s attended seven different schools.

Statewide, special education students accounted for nearly 8 percent of all student disciplinary actions in 2015, according to data from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. In 2016, 23.8 percent of special education students missed 18 days or more of school.

The lack of funding for special education is a statewide issue, and one that isn’t going to be fixed anytime soon, according to Stacy Gillet, director of the King County ARC, a disabilities advocacy group.

“We hear from families it’s really a struggle to get services for their child,” Gillet said.

Despite a concerted effort, spurred on by the McCleary v. State of Washington lawsuit and subsequent state Supreme Court ruling to fully fund education in the state, recent budget proposals by state lawmakers will not increase funding for special education students significantly, she said.

Instead, Gillet said, both the Republican and Democrat budget proposals leave thousands of students underserved. According to a friend of the court brief filed by the Arc of Washington State in the McCleary lawsuit, both proposals leave 8,688 students without state funding for special needs.

That’s largely because neither budget changes a policy that caps what the state pays districts for special education services at 12.7 percent of a district’s full-time enrollment, Gillet said. According to the court document, 120 school districts in Washington have special education populations exceeding 12.7 percent – including Spokane Public Schools.

“To impose a cap on one vulnerable group of students is just blatantly unconstitutional,” said Katherine George, the attorney who filed the amicus brief. “It’s saying, ‘Here is a group that’s going to be shortchanged intentionally.’ It’s part of the state’s formula.”

In Spokane Public Schools, roughly 14 percent of students qualified for special education in 2017, or about 4,400 K-12 students. There are about 31,000 students enrolled in the district.

Spokane Public Schools administrators agree that special education is underfunded, although they say it’s not negatively impacting services.

“I really do worry about public education if we don’t make progress for special education funding,” said Spokane Public Schools superintendent Shelley Redinger.

“I would say we’re having to be more and more creative,” Redinger said, although she added, “I would say we’ve never said ‘No, we can’t.’ ”

Same problem, different solutions

Doug Gill, the assistant superintendent for special education at OSPI, agrees there is a problem with funding in Washington. However, the problem isn’t the 12.7 cap, he said.

Instead, he said the current multiplier, a number used to determine how much more money special education students receive per pupil, is too low.

“I have concerns with the current level of funding because the current level of funding is not keeping up with the cost of special education,” he said.

The current multiplier is 22 years old and doesn’t adequately factor in the increased cost of special education services. Gill believes that’s a bigger problem than the 12.7 percent cap. He used an economics analogy to explain the issue.

“If you’re losing money on the unit cost of an item, you can’t make the difference up in volume,” he said.

Currently, districts across the state pour more than $140 million in local levy dollars into special education programs. If special education were fully funded, those dollars could go elsewhere.

Gill said the cap serves an important role in that it keeps districts from overidentifying special education students. The 12.7 percent rate was set in 1995 using prevalence rates from that time, he said. He said the rate is referenced to full-time-equivalent enrollment of districts, which is not the same as student head count. He said the current statewide FTE average is 11.92 percent.

“You don’t want to over-incentivize enrollment in special education either,” he said. “Alternative special education is the most richly funded program out there.”

Prior to the cap being established in 1995, Gill said there was no upper limit. In one 10-year period the general education budget grew about 40 percent, while the special education budget grew 52 percent, he said.

That doesn’t mean he thinks the cap shouldn’t be raised. Within the next five years, the cap’s appropriateness should be re-evaluated, but first he advocates that the multiplier be increased.

Meanwhile, Spokane Public School officials believe the 12.7 cap puts them at a disadvantage and that the state should raise it.

“I think it’s their paramount duty to at least fund up to the state average,” said Lisa Pacheco, the district’s director of special education.

During the most recent school year, Spokane Public Schools used $5 million in levy money to fund special education, said Linda McDermott, the district’s chief financial officer. The total special education budget was $47.6 million. Although the state offers districts some backup funding, known as safety net funding, it doesn’t cover the difference, she said.

Senate Bill 5432 would raise the multiplier to 1.08, which Gill said would inject about $140 million into special education budgets statewide and remove the need to use levy money.

Both Gill and McDermott are hopeful that whatever final education budget is settled upon by state lawmakers, it will benefit special education programs.

“A common interest across all of our districts is being able to cover the costs of special education,” McDermott said. “I know our budget writers are aware of the challenge and that it is an integral part of basic education.”

The invisible problem

Gillet isn’t as hopeful. From her conversations with lawmakers, she gets the sense they think the issue is too complicated to tackle, she said.

“Yeah, it’s sort of this invisible problem,” she said. “Much like the population is an invisible group. I guess it goes hand in hand.”

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington filed a suit against OSPI on behalf of special education students who have “been wrongfully disciplined for behavior related to the disabilities,” according to court documents.

Although the suit doesn’t deal directly with funding issues, Gillet believes they are connected.

“In the ACLU lawsuit just filed, issues of untrained staff and denial of services due to lack of funding were raised and in large part lead back directly to how we fund special education,” she said in an email.

Rosey Thurman, a lawyer for Team Child, said many of her Spokane clients report the district resisting or otherwise slowing down the services they offer special education students. Often, she said, the reason given is a lack of funding.

“I find it shocking that the students who have the greatest need are treated poorly,” she said.

Meanwhile, parents like Erin Carden and her son wait. On a recent Tuesday, Carden’s phone rang. Her son wasn’t cooperating. Could she please come pick him up?

“I dread the number flashing across my screen,” she said.