Friday, February 17, 2017

Education funding: What is the plan and will it cover students with disabilities?

At The Arc of King County, we are concerned that state efforts to fill funding gaps for K-12 schools will leave special education behind. This is based on current levels of local funding going into special education, as well as the state’s intention to continue capping special education funding at 12.7 percent of full-time enrolled students. This cap is applied at the local level, without regard to demographics. Last year, 120 districts and a charter school exceeded the cap.

  • CURIOUS? You can look up your district (or any other one) here to check special education funding and enrollment, and other data.


Public schools are always a big part of the state’s operating budget, but this year advocates for various causes are closely monitoring what happens with K-12 funding.

The state is in the final year of phasing in additional funding to pay for an expanded program of basic education, first proposed and passed in 2009. The state is also under court watch to amply fund education. In its January 2012 McCleary v State ruling, the state supreme court said if the expanded basic education program was implemented and funded, then the court would be satisfied. The state lost the McCleary suit, which asserted that Washington was not meeting its paramount duty to amply fund education for all children in the state.

People watching K-12 education want to make sure the program is adequately funded; and people from other advocacy areas are wondering what increased funding for K-12 will mean for other budget areas.

SPECIAL EDUCATION - Districts are supplementing and stretching funding
In Washington, special education services are part of the program of basic education, and as such are the responsibility of the state to fund. To qualify for services, students must pass three criteria:
  • First, be diagnosed by a doctor or team of professionals as having a qualifying disability (these are listed in federal law).
  • Second, demonstrate that the disability adversely affects their ability to learn.
  • Third, demonstrate that their unique needs cannot be addressed through general education classes alone, with or without accommodations.

Under the federal mandate of child find, school districts must identify, find and evaluate all children with disabilities. Not all children with disabilities will qualify for special education, but if they do, then the districts must serve them.

Funding: Currently, special education is considered part the state’s program of basic education and is funded by allocating additional money to school districts using a multiplier. Each school district gets a base per pupil allocation. For special education, the state multiplies that base by .93, and allocates that extra amount for up to 12.7 percent of full-time student enrollment (FTE). 

The catch: Districts only receive special education funding for up to 12.7 percent FTE, even if they have more students who qualify. This system is in place despite variances in district demographics, despite districts sizes, and even despite ages served. (Special education rates tend to be higher for younger children.) 

It is also in place even though there is no nationally accepted incidence rate. The best approximation for younger children (ages 2 to 8) is 15.4 percent, according to a report published by the Centers for Disease Control last year that reviewed data on mental, behavioral and developmental disability rates. 

This funding system was implemented in 1995, along with a safety net that schools could apply to if they went above the cap, or if they had a high needs individual.

But the safety net doesn't come close to covering actual costs and adds additional gates that students need to clear. For instance, districts need to demonstrate a unique combination of extraordinary demographic, environmental, sociological or other factors to explain why their rate exceeds the cap. In a very small district, one additional family can tip the district over the cap.

Our analysis last year found 120 school districts and one charter school had rates above 12.7 percent.  Most of these were smaller, rural schools, but Spokane and Edmonds were also on the list. In contrast, only seven districts received “Community Impact” funding through the safety net, for a combined award of less than $2 million. The other districts stretched their funding across more children.

There were far more awards under “High Needs Individual,” but even then the total amount allocated was just $39.8 million. In contrast, school districts supplemented special education with local funds by $160 million annually, according to recent legislative testimony by Doug Gill, assistant superintendent for special education at the Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction. Other analysis has put that figure at more than $200 million.

(UPDATE: According to a July 2016 amicus curiae filed by the state superintendent in the McCleary case, in the 2014-15 school year school districts spent $266 million more on special education than the state allocated. In all, $1.71 billion was spent on special education that year.)


The Senate and House take different approaches, but both end up with a per pupil allocation that is sent to school districts. 

The Senate plan (SSB 5607) allocates a fixed amount for each student ($10,000), then supplements for students receiving special education services ($7,500), students who are low-income, students in transitional  bilingual programs, highly capable students, career and technical education students, and students living in homelessness.

In its substitute bill passed off the floor, the Senate included its version of the paraeducator bill, SB 5070, a bill we support. This bill differs from the House version in that it requires standards, training and certification, per the recommendations of the paraeducator work group. The House version makes standards and training voluntary. 
The plan uses a levy swap to increase funding at some schools. It would also require cuts to other parts of the budget.

Our concerns with the Senate plan:

  • The Senate puts additional restrictions on how local excess levy funds can be used. No local funds can be used for basic education costs, and plans for those excess levy funds need to be approved by the state to "ensure they are not used for basic education programs." Special education is part of basic education, so the state would have to cover 100 percent of costs. But the Senate plan keeps the cap, cutting off funding for students over it. 
  • It retains the safety net, but does not expand it to buffer the loss of local money.
  • The Senate plan also repeals Initiative 1351, which reduced class sizes and added support positions such as counselors, nurses, social workers and psychologists. Those support positions are important to inclusion efforts, as well as efforts to reduce suspension and expulsion through positive behavior supports.
  • The plan also fails to account for training and technical assistance that would help schools adopt universal design for learning approaches and improve inclusion of students with disabilities.

The House plan (SHB 1843) keeps the prototypical school model. That is, it bases its formula on what an average school requires in staffing. Districts are not required to align their spending to the formula; it just shows how the state came up with its allocation and gives the public an idea of what their district could be providing. The House adds funding for family engagement coordinators and counselors to the prototypical modes and increases funding in some categorical areas, such as Learning Assistance, Highly Capable and Transitional Bilingual.

It does not change the special education funding formula. Allocations for special education would increase, however, because the House plan increases funding overall, and in its plan special education is still tied to a multiplier -- that is, the state takes the basic per pupil allocation and multiplies it by 0.93.

The House plan also keeps the cap, but calls for a work group to review it.  
  • Bill report  (Note: This report is for the original bill; excludes language for a work group on the cap)
This plan does not address revenue; but to pay for it, revenue would need to be increased, or cuts made to other parts of the budget. There are separate revenue bills that have been introduced in the House.

Our concerns with the House plan

  • The cap remains, meaning state costs would continue to be pushed down to districts to absorb, or districts would have to stretch funding to cover more students. They should not be denying or delaying services, but we fear this is sometimes the case as districts near the cap.
  • The safety net is unchanged. We do not disagree with the concept of a safety net, especially for high needs individuals, but we question the additional hurdles students face in its current administration. We also question the funding amount attached to it, with evidence showing districts are supplementing four or five times as much as is allocated to the safety net.
  • The prototypical model fails to fund for enough paraeducators. Currently, it funds for just one per school, and eventually would phase in two per school. Given that paraeducators provide about 60 percent of the specially designed instruction needed due to disabilities, we think this is too low. 
  • The plan also fails to account for training and technical assistance that would help schools adopt universal design for learning approaches and improve inclusion of students with disabilities.  
  • The House plan does not address raising the multiplier that is used for special education funding, but a Senate bill, SB 5432, did, calling for a boost to 1.08 ... so, (base per pupil allocation) x (1.03 percent) = special education allocation per student, up to 12.7 percent of full-time enrollment.  You can view video of this bill's hearing here.
We will be sharing our views with the King County delegation, and we encourage advocates to contact their representatives about the bills. You can do that by clicking in the "Comment on this Bill" buttons on the bill pages.
- Ramona Hattendorf, Director of Advocacy, The Arc of King County