Oct 1, 2023, Tacoma, WA, News Tribune, 100+ WA districts are starting school year without fully funded special ed. Here’s why https://amp.thenewstribune.com/news/local/education/article279226369.html
On the first day of school in 2019, Kristin Luippold sat in her parked car outside of Washington Elementary School, holding her breath.
She wasn’t sure who was more terrified – her or her son, Max.
That morning, Luippold stepped out of the car, unbuckled Max from his five-point harness car seat and began the block-long walk to school with him. As they passed through a black metal gate at the edge of the grounds and approached the field, Max squeezed her hand tighter, eyes wide as he looked up at the three-story brick building towering in front of him.
“I was pretty scared, because I knew this would be really hard for him,” Luippold said. “And I didn’t know what we would do if it didn’t work out, or if it got worse.”
For the Luippolds, Max’s first day of kindergarten wasn’t just any first day.
Max has developmental delays and behavioral needs that make it difficult for him to build trust and regulate emotions. As he approached the sea of children and parents filling the field next to the blacktop, their voices grew louder and more overstimulating. Luippold scanned the crowd, searching for Max’s new paraeducator. …
At times, Luippold said, that journey has left them unsure of where to turn.
Max is one of thousands of students with disabilities returning to school this September.
Many of those students aren’t being accounted for in the state’s special education budget.
Historically, Washington public schools have seen a shortfall in special education funding, according to data from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). Despite recent efforts to address that gap, an estimated 110 districts are still starting the school year without fully funded special education programs, leaving them to rely on local levies to meet the needs of their students. As district officials contend with the lack of funding, they’re faced with the challenge of doing more with less.
STATE LEGISLATURE UPDATES FUNDING FORMULA
Over the past five years, the percentage of students in special education has increased statewide, but funding has lagged behind actual enrollment. Over the same time period, statewide special education expenditures have exceeded revenues.
According to an OSPI 2023-25 biennial budget request, state and federal special education funding fell short of district needs by more than $400 million during the 2021-22 school year, creating an 18% gap between available funds and district expenditures reported on end-of-year financial statements.
In light of the gap, the Washington State Legislature approved adjustments to the state’s special education funding formula.
The special education funding formula in Washington has multiple components, including a district’s basic education allocation (BEA) and tiered multipliers (set numbers that the state multiplies by student counts and BEAs, which vary based on students’ time spent in general education settings).
It also includes a funding cap.
Until recently, the state funded special education for up to 13.5% of a district’s student body.
That meant if more than 13.5% of students in a district had an individualized educational plan (IEP), it didn’t receive full funding. The cap, which originally sat at 12.5%, was implemented by the state decades ago based on enrollment averages at the time and claims that parents would otherwise try to label their children as special education students to get more funding for their districts.
Last year, more than half of Washington’s 295 school districts exceeded the 13.5% cap, which does not apply to pre-K programs.
In April of this year, the Legislature passed HB 1436, adding an estimated $417 million to the state special education budget over the next biennium and nearly $1 billion over four years.
The bill increased the multipliers used in the state’s funding formula and brought the funding cap up to 15%. That was less than state education officials requested.
OSPI’s biennial budget request called for more than twice what the Legislature provided and proposed a complete removal of the funding cap. It also requested new multipliers higher than the Legislature approved. This year, 110 school districts find themselves above the new funding cap, according to data provided by OSPI.
“I don’t think either of us believes that we fully funded special education,” Rep. Gerry Pollet, who introduced the bill, said in an interview with The News Tribune and Sen. Lisa Wellman, chair of early learning and K-12 education. “The obstacle, in my view, is [that] there are many things of great importance to spend money on in the state budget, and there’s a tug of war over education versus all those other things.”
Pollet added that shortfalls on the part of the federal government also contribute to the funding gap. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal government is supposed to pay up to 40% of a state’s excess costs for educating students with disabilities. As of February, it only pays about 13%, according to a Senate joint memorial.
Last school year, five Pierce County public school districts surpassed the 13.5% special education funding cap: Tacoma, Orting, Clover Park, Carbonado and Chief Leschi Tribal Compact. Despite the increased funding, two districts – Carbonado and Chief Leschi Tribal Compact – remain above the new 15% cap this year.
Without a cap, the Carbonado School District’s state special education allocation would be $330,778.37, based on budgeted enrollment data provided to OSPI by districts in September. With the cap, $34,735.68, or 10.5% of that allocation is subtracted.
The Chief Leschi Tribal Compact, on the other hand, will lose $729,555.28, or 42.1% of its state special education allocation….
While the current funding formula takes enrollment into account, it doesn’t look at the specific needs or costs outlined in students’ IEPs, said Tania May, OSPI assistant superintendent of special education. Every district will have unique funding needs based on its size, location and the students it serves….
Elise Friedrich-Nielsen, director of student services in the Tacoma School District, sees things similarly.
“For the district, we’re committed to [meeting] kids where they’re at and giving them what they need,” Friedrich-Nielsen said. “And so it’d be nice if there was a funding philosophy that followed that same philosophy so that we weren’t hindered in doing what’s right for kids based on the funding we’re able to receive or be reliant on having to go back out to the community and ask for more tax dollars in that way.”…
DISTRICTS LOOK TO LEVIES FOR SUPPORT
When gaps exist between state and federal funding and district expenses, districts must rely on other funding sources.
“Any cap that’s there, there’s still needs above it,” said Jessie Sprouse, superintendent of the Carbonado School District. “You then have to be creative in your budget of how you’re going to meet the unique needs of the students that are in your buildings or district. That money is going to come from somewhere because you need to meet the kids’ needs and we want to meet their needs.”
More often than not, the source is local levies.
According to the 2012 McCleary Washington Supreme Court decision, the state has a constitutional obligation to fully fund basic education; hypothetically, levy dollars should only be used for educational enhancements. When funding falls short, the line between basic needs and enhancements can become blurred….
=The Tacoma School District has seen a similar story, on a much larger scale. This year, the district is receiving $79 million in levy dollars, about 8.5% of which is anticipated to go to special education.
Rosalind Medina, the district’s chief financial officer, said it uses the levy to fund mental health supports, nurses and security far beyond what the state provides. If special education isn’t covered, some priorities have to shift.
“If special education needs to take up a larger component of our levy dollars, that means that there’s less dollars to do these other things with if the levy isn’t growing,” Medina said.
Broadly speaking, a district that spends more of its levy dollars on special education might have to make up for it by cutting staff through attrition or by reducing hours. The special education gap is only part of the picture, though.
Medina said school districts face funding gaps across the board. Although the Tacoma School District is technically “fully funded” for special education this year, it is still coming up millions of dollars short in other areas….