When they meet in Olympia Monday to start their 105-day session, state lawmakers will be confronted by a request that almost all education organizations agree on: The state needs to fully fund special education.
“Part of our mission is to serve all kids no matter what. We accept that responsibility wholeheartedly,” said Longview Superintendent Dan Zorn. “But there are costs associated with that.”
Longview schools dedicate about 15 percent, or about $14 million, of their budget to special ed. Kelso schools earmark about 14 percent, which goes toward staffing one-to-one aides, psychologists, therapists and other special ed support staff, said Kelso Superintendent Mary Beth Tack.
The state now pays special-ed money for up to 13.5 percent of a school district’s student population (the state average).
Longview’s special-ed students make up 18.7 percent of the student population, so the district used $1.2 million of local property tax revenue to make up the difference, Zorn said.
In Kelso, about 15 percent of students qualify for special ed programs. The district uses about $1 million in local money to fill the gap, said Kelso Superintendent Mary Beth Tack.
That’s money that could be used for teacher salaries, basic education programming or “other budget areas,” Zorn said. “Any additional help we get from the state funding for that responsibility is a help for our budget as a whole.”
Districts may apply for extra assistance through the state’s “safety net,” a program which provides funding for special education students whose education plans and needs cost more than about $32,000.
“It’s a cool piece Washington has in place, but it can be hard to get at that money sometimes because of the tightness of the rules,” Zorn said.
So Longview, Kelso and 28 other districts in this region are proposing that state legislators loosen up the safety net requirements, increase the per-pupil funding amount or provide money for the exact percentage of special education students in a district.
Of all the requests coming from education organizations, the request for additional special education funding is the “most likely to find success,” Zorn said. That’s because there is a unified message from educators across the state, including the 30 southwest Washington districts, the state teachers union and the state school superintendent.
Legislators for years have grappled with the McCleary decision’s command to fully fund basic education, and they’re still tweaking that issue. So a request to fully fund special ed., too, may face some resistance. But 20th District Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, said unified messages like this make it easier to support a request.
“Obviously, there is something we need to do differently, because some of our school districts are struggling,” Orcutt said. He added that legislators “have to take a better look at what the actual needs are and what the actual expenses are for each of the school districts.”
Other local state legislators were unavailable for comment last week. Zorn said, however, that legislators are “interested in exploring this with us.”
“We see the need, and many districts are dealing with what we are dealing with (in Longview),” Zorn said. “There are needs we have to get satisfied … so the more help we get from the state, the better off we will be.”