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Tuesday, June 2, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Sima Tarzaban Thorpe and Ramona Hattendorf: Another reason the cap on special education is bad practice

By Sima Tarzaban Thorpe and Ramona Hattendorf

Washington state caps funded special education enrollment, a harmful practice advocates have called the state out on for years, mostly to shrugs from state legislators and the governor. Now a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reaffirms why this is such bad practice.

According to the CDC, prevalence rates are higher in rural areas for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, blindness, cerebral palsy, moderate to profound hearing loss, learning disability, intellectual disability, seizures, stuttering or stammering and other developmental delays.

At the same time, children in rural areas are much less likely to receive special education and early intervention services, the study says.

The report from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics found that 19.8 percent of children ages 3 to 17 in rural areas qualified for a developmental disability diagnosis, compared with 17.4 percent of urban children.

How does this play out in Washington?

Our legislators cut off funding for special education once the percentage of full-time enrollment (FTE) hits 13.5 percent – well below the averages noted by the CDC. Statewide, our average for special education is 12.5 percent of FTE. But that percentage reflects communities with fewer than 2 percent FTE students qualifying to more than 20 percent.

And while Washington’s cap is arbitrary, the research showing varying incident rates is not. Local education agencies most affected are small and rural.

Take tiny Orient in Ferry County with a full-time student enrollment of 47. Orient School District has six students with disabilities over the enrollment cap, forcing the district to spread its state allocations more thinly. Instead of $8,514 per student for special education and related services, they make do with $4,349.

Contrast that with districts in suburban King County: Lake Washington has $9,507 per special education student, Bellevue has $9,302, and Mercer Island has $9,318.

The situation isn’t as extreme in Spokane Public Schools, but we also take a hit. In February, Spokane had 386 students over the funded enrollment cap. If that number holds steady for the year, then instead of having $8,766 per student to spend, it will have to make do with $7,990.

The 20 school communities most over the cap in Washington are tiny – averaging just 208 students each. Of local education agencies over the cap:

  • 82 have fewer than 1,000 students.
  • 14 have more than 5,000 students.
  • Only two have enrollment over 10,000.

In other words: communities that may lack capacity to backfill for state funding.

Instead of embracing our students with disabilities and their families, and ensuring they get the right supports in a timely manner, the state doubles down on barriers to their educational success and creates potentially confrontational situations over access. Federal law requires districts to find all students with disabilities; state lawmakers penalize them if they find “too many.” Caught in the middle are families trying to get the right educational supports for their loved ones.

In recent floor remarks in the Senate, it was suggested the state couldn’t lift the cap because some schools over-identified racial and ethnic subgroups. Incorrect identification absolutely needs to be addressed. Meta-analysis of research shows under-identification of racial and ethnic minorities in certain instances, and over-identification in others. Providing students the support they need, when they need it, hinges on timely and correct diagnosis.

But simply cutting off funds without showing cause leaves more than 4,000 students statewide underfunded. If misidentification is the chief concern, the state could tap federal dollars to offer technical assistance. It already collects the information, and we already know misidentification isn’t necessarily associated with being over the enrollment cap. The sampling we took indicated communities most over the cap are simply very small, and very rural.

The Legislature’s solution to fight bias is to force communities tucked into pockets east of the Cascades, on the Peninsula, or in the state’s corners make do with less.

It is well past time to lift this cap, stop adding unnecessary barriers, and give ALL children with disabilities the support they need to thrive and fulfill their potential.

Sima Tarzaban Thorpe is executive director of The Arc of Spokane. Ramona Hattendorf is advocacy director for The Arc of King County and serves on the steering committee for Investing in Student Potential, a statewide coalition for students with disabilities.

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