Seattle must decide: What does it mean? How do we support it?
While thousands of King County children are headed back school, the first day of class for two school districts – Kent and Seattle – is in limbo pending contract negotiations with teachers.
Kent teachers have been on strike since August 25, citing differences on how to improve learning conditions, specifically staffing ratios for special education and student mental health supports. Talks continue in Seattle, but teachers are preparing to strike. A major point of negotiation in Seattle involves how to implement special education services in inclusive settings.
Talks with mediators have started in both school districts.
In Seattle, the district wants to end several pullout programs and implement collaborative teaching, instead.
The negotiations touch on staffing levels and related supports for staff, which in turn can affect placement decisions for students receiving special education services.
What’s at stake?
Students could find themselves in more, or less, restricted
settings, depending on resources provided and the flexibility to allocate staff
based on student need. Resources include staff access to mentoring and technical
assistance, as well as adjustments to the learning environment to make it accessible to students with certain disabilities.
If staffing and certain student supports are rigidly tied to a specific learning environment, then some students might be funneled into programs that segregate them and limit their access to the core curriculum.
- An example: A student is offered a spot in a program with a lower student to teacher ratio, ostensibly so they can get more support. But the trade off is they are educated separately from classmates without disabilities – not because they need to be separate to learn, but because of the way the staffing ratios are set. They may also lose access to content experts.
This could violate their rights under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It could also violate provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
It also runs contrary to decades of research that shows inclusive education has better results both for students with disabilities and without.
But – and this is a big one – if the general education setting is not intentionally designed and supported to be accessible and responsive to diverse students, then students with disabilities could be further marginalized by changes.
Students with IEPs in Seattle and statewide already have much lower graduation rates than nondisabled peers, and much higher discipline rates; and, statewide, 93% of incidents of restraint or isolation involve students with disabilities.
Under IDEA, the least restricted environment is not just placement
in a general education class; it is placement in that setting plus the
supports needed to make it accessible. High rates of removal or incidents of restraint or isolation often indicate appropriate supports aren't in place, learning programs aren't designed to be inclusive, or both.
Advocates tracking negotiations want to ensure that if classroom settings change for students, the supports they need are accounted for and will follow them to new settings.
And, just as important, advocates want to ensure that schools have the resources and technical support to roll out inclusive learning spaces. Inclusive schools anticipate diverse needs and design for accessibility. They are proactive.
They don’t rely on students to adapt to them.
Other organizations are concerned that autistic students, specifically, might be left without places to decompress while facing additional pressure to socially mask. That could undermine their mental health.
Some advocates have also voiced concern over failure of the
Seattle School Board to ensure shared definitions of terms like inclusion and
collaborative teaching before heading into contract negotiations, as well as lack of transparency in possible changes to delivery
of special education services.
Who is accountable?
The school board.
Some school policies are set at the state level – such as learning standards, graduation requirements, and teacher certification standards. But under Washington law, locally elected school boards are the governing entity in charge of schools.
They implement federal and state policies, set local policies, and allocate resources. They are responsible for educating students and following the law, even when they delegate authority.
The local board hires a superintendent to carry out its directives, and the superintendent hires staff. Staff, in turn, negotiates working conditions through collective bargaining agreements.
But ultimately, responsibility – and accountability – falls to the school board directors.
They sign off on collective bargaining agreements. They
decide what programs the district offers, what curriculum it uses, how it
But they can’t act in a silo.
A school district's policies and practices must align with federal and state law, and they must make sure that how money is spent aligns with funding rules. Public money usually comes with strings attached on how it can be spent.
In terms of hierarchy of law:
- Collective bargaining agreements can’t conflict with local, state, or federal policies or law
- Local policies can’t conflict with state or federal policies and law
- State policies and law can’t conflict with federal policies and law
- And no one can discriminate; if they create systems that discriminate against protected classes, intentionally or not, school boards must change them
If violations of civil rights are suspected, then the federal Office of Civil Rights (OCR) may investigate. If they find violations, OCR will first try to negotiate a voluntary resolution. If that fails, OCR can initiate administrative enforcement, or refer the case to the Department of Justice.
Federal protected classes include:
- Physical or mental disability
- Sex (including gender, pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity)
- Religion or creed
- National origin or ancestry
- Veteran status
- Genetic information
The state also has anti-discrimination laws that school board
directors are responsible for following.
What federal law says
Schools can’t limit access or segregate people because of their disability.
This needs to be said, because until the mid-1970s schools could, and did, refuse to educate children with disabilities. Educators sorted students into categories – “educable, trainable, custodial” – that determined whether they would be given access to learning, and if so, what it would look like.
We live with this troubling legacy today, with some families reporting practices that feel like sorting, and IEP battles over access to basics, like learning how to read.
But the law changed in 1970s and continued evolving into the 2000s.
It is also important to note that Washington schools are more likely to segregate kids with disabilities than other states.
- On including
students with disabilities in the general education setting, we are in the
bottom 10, overall, and bottom 2 for including students with intellectual
disabilities. (Fall 2019 data; 2021 IDEA Report to Congress)
We are outliers, and our schools have normalized practices that aren't supported by research or the law.
This gets more complicated for school districts like Seattle – which have significant disproportionality when it comes to identifying Black students with intellectual disabilities.
Students with a certain profile may be more likely to be segregated. That's a red flag.
Here is what federal law says about access to public education for students with disabilities.
SECTION 504: All people with disabilities in schools or other programs that use federal money are protected by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (often simply referred to as “Section 504”). In the school setting, this law mandates access to a free and appropriate public education and equal opportunity to benefit in the most integrated setting appropriate to the person's needs.
TITLE II, ADA: Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act
(ADA) – passed in 1990 – bans discrimination based on disability by local and
state government, including school districts. Public schools must make
educational opportunities, extracurricular activities, and facilities open and
accessible to all students. They can’t force students, because of their
disability, to participate in a particular program, or deny them the opportunity
to participate in programs available to students without disabilities. Some guidance
issued by the federal government involving public schools and the ADA:
- Dear Colleague, Enforcement of Title II of the ADA
- Prohibited disability harassment
- Dear Colleague, Restraint and Seclusion of Students with Disabilities
- FAQ: Effective communication for students with hearing, vision, or speech disabilities
statement on inclusion of children with disabilities in early childhood
IDEA: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), supports equal educational opportunities for eligible students. First passed in 1975 under a different name, IDEA has been updated several times, most recently in 2004. IDEA is a grant bill. That is, it grants funding to school districts to pay for special education services that are supposed to ensure eligible students have access to a free and appropriate public education. In return, schools must abide by IDEA’s rules. One rule requires special education services and supports to be provided in the least restricted environment (LRE).
IDEA presumes that the first placement option for LRE is the regular classroom the child would attend if he or she did not have a disability, with supports pushed in.
Before placing a student with a disability in a different environment (for instance, one that required a separate setting or pullouts), IEP teams must consider the full range of aids and services that could be used to successfully support the student in a regular classroom setting and enable them to meet high expectations.
Under IDEA, LRE placement is both a location for services and the supports needed to be successful in that environment. Some guidance issued by the federal government:
All this is to say, when you consider Section 504, Title II of the ADA, and IDEA collectively, you find a legal basis for inclusion:
- Don’t discriminate
- Make the regular education environment accessible
- Provide supports to meet high expectations
How are schools making general education accessible?
Educational approaches like Universal Design for Learning offer ways to rethink the delivery of education so it is more inclusive and accessible, by design.
In Washington state, 54 school districts have joined a Statewide Support for District Change partnership led by the Washington Association of School Administrators (WASA) to provide professional learning and support as districts move into fully inclusive learning environments for students with disabilities. This effort takes a structured approach to districtwide implementation of approaches like Universal Design for Learning.
(Five districts in King County signed on, including Auburn Public Schools, Highline Public Schools, Lake Washington School District, Mercer Island School District, and Vashon Island School District. Neither Seattle nor Kent school districts opted to participate.)
Another initiative, the Inclusionary Practices Professional Development Project, led by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, focuses on inclusive teaching practices and offers a collection of resources for educators and community to learn from.
- A Professional Development Cadre to train and
mentor educators on inclusionary practices, at no cost to schools and districts
(the state legislature provided funding for this; it is in addition to regular allocations
to school districts for professional development)
- Collaboration with the Haring Center for Inclusive Education to
create model demonstration sites for
- Technical assistance from the TIES Center to create sustainable change (we love this collaboration; TIES makes
a point to call out inclusion of students with substantial disabilities. All
means all in their framework)
- Online resources, including an Inclusionary Practices Handbook, and Myth & Facts About Inclusionary Practices
OSPI also includes information about the benefits of inclusion for all students and offers its definition of inclusion:
“Inclusion is the belief that all students have a right to meaningfully participate in the general education setting, both academically and socially. Inclusion is realized when all students, regardless of their designation to receive special education services, are provided with targeted services, supports, and accommodations; allowing them to learn in the general education classroom, interact with peers, and engage the core curriculum.
"Inclusive instruction rebukes the problematic perspective that students receiving special education services need to ‘fit in’ or ‘earn their way’ into general education classes.
"The belief that general education instruction is not malleable and that students should be making adaptations to be included in the general education setting has contributed to the continuation of two parallel systems of education in which students receiving special education services are marginalized and devalued because of their environmental segregation.”
OSPI also offers a link to least restricted environment data
(LRE Trend Data by LEA) so communities can check to see how they are doing. This
is data required under IDEA for transparency and accountability. It looks at various
indicators to see if states are in compliance with IDEA and if they are meeting
the goals of their state plan.
So, how is Seattle Public Schools doing?
When it comes to least restricted environment, Seattle is not that dissimilar than the state, but remember the state has high rates of separating out students with IEPs. Washington ranks in the bottom 10 overall and bottom 2 for intellectual disabilities for LRE settings in general education. (Fall 2019 data; 2021 IDEA Report to Congress) The 50 states plus the Bureau of Indian Education, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico are included the national rankings. (IDEA report to Congress)
It does not appear Seattle is engaging in state efforts to rollout inclusive practices. It is not listed as a partner in the Statewide Supports for District Change to implement Universal Design for Learning. It also doesn't show up on OSPI's map showing where its Professional Development Cadre is active.
(One school in Kent shows up on the cadre map.)
Of great concern: Seattle’s disproportionate identification of students who are Black, Hispanic, and or American Indian/Alaskan Native.
Seattle shows up as disproportionately identifying American Indian/Alaskan Native students for disabilities, in general.
Seattle also shows significant disproportionality in specific categories:
- American Indian/Alaska Native students, for specific learning disabilities
- Black students, for intellectual disability
- Hispanic students, for specific learning disabilities
This means, more students are identified for these services than
you would expect, based on demographics. If they are then funneled into programs with limited access to general education, then they may be discriminated against on the basis of race/ethnicity and disability.
Least restricted environment
On least restricted environment, American Indian/Alaskan Native and Black students have the highest risk ratios for placement of less than 40% of the day in a general education class.
White students slightly edge out Black students on highest risk ratio for placement in a separate school or residential facilities. (Those can include a range of options and quality.)
On the other hand, the number of students spending 80% to 100% of their day in the general education environment has slightly increased, from 64.3% in 2017-18, to 66.6% in 2020-21. This exceeds the state average, which was 60% in 2020-21.
And fewer students in Seattle are spending less than 40% of their day in a general education setting. The numbers fell slightly from 13% in 2017-18 to 11% in 2020-21. This is lower than the state average, which was 12.2% in 2020-21.
In Seattle, Black and multiracial students with disabilities have the
highest risk ratios for school disciplinary removal – in some cases twice the
risk of White students with disabilities. And disability on its own is already a major risk indicator for removal.
Drop out and graduation
Drop-out rates of Seattle students with disabilities have been
increasing, from 5.11% in 2017-18 to 6.6% in 2019-20. Each year exceeded the state
average (Washington averaged 5.8% in 2019-20).
Data around Seattle students with IEPs graduating with regular diplomas is less clear. In 2018-19, it was 54.9%, compared to a state average of 61.7%. Seattle numbers jumped in 2019-20 to 64.2%, but that is also the year COVID restrictions hit and large numbers of students were granted exceptions to graduation requirements.
For early learning, most children ages 3 to 5 with IEPs in Seattle continue to be served in segregated settings. In 2020-21:
- 23% learned in a regular early childhood program, with supports pushed in (state average was 21%)
- 53% learned in segregated programs (state average was 53.5%)
- 3% in learned in regular programs, with pull-out services (state average was 12.5%)
- 21% received services only (no educational program), at a service provider location (state average was 12.3%)
Seattle preschoolers with IEPs functioning within age expectations trailed state averages: 36% vs 44% for social emotional skills, and 41% vs 45% for knowledge skills. On use of appropriate behavior to meet their needs, Seattle reported 48% functioning at age expectations vs 55% state average.
Studies of inclusive early learning show it beats the alternative 15 to 1 for skill development.
In a recent presentation on special education, OSPI's Assistant Superintendent for Special Education, Tania May, flagged several barriers to equity for students with disabilities.
They include staffing models that encourage segregation. The way school districts and staff negotiated staffing ratios to link them to segregated pathways hasn't always served students well.
But barriers to equity also include:
- Low expectations
- Disproportionate identification and discipline
- Lack of access and opportunity to core instruction from content experts
- School schedules that contribute to removals from core instruction in general education
- Teacher and staff shortages
- Training needs for school staff and educators who support students with disabilities.
Not all of these are items for contract negotiations. But staff time for training, mentoring, and technical assistance is. Devising some mechanism to ensure school staff have enough time for collaboration and IEP duties could be. So could implementing co-teaching, or other strategies that ensure students with disabilities have access to both core instruction from content experts and specialized supports from experts.
No one has the right to negotiate separate placement of students with disabilities. Teachers cannot refuse to teach a student because they have a disability, not can they insist students receiving special education services be educated separately. But neither can school boards nor the administrators they hire to run schools refuse to provide the supports students need under IDEA. The supports must be available to students in the least restricted environment.
- Written by Ramona Hattendorf, Director of Advocacy at The Arc of King County