In Washington state, school districts don’t always have enough money to provide the mandated supports to students with disabilities.
Here’s how the funding system currently works: Schools first receive an extra $6,900 to $9,700 from the state for every special-needs student that they enroll. Individual districts also can tap their local property-tax levies to hire speech pathologists, occupational therapists and other specialized professionals who work with students with disabilities.
But some students have needs so severe that districts struggle to afford what it takes to provide them with a free and appropriate education, a right guaranteed by federal law. Seattle Public Schools, for example, enrolled a handful of students last year who required services that cost between $300,000 and $500,000 each.
Now, a legislative work group is asking the public to weigh in on a draft list of recommendations that could make it easier for school districts to collect additional state and federal funds to help cover some of those costs.
“It is a very detailed, laborious process,” JoLynn Berge, assistant superintendent of business and finance for Seattle Public Schools, said of the state’s application process to access that extra money.
Why is it so hard? In Washington, school districts can’t count on local taxes — their main sources of revenue come from the state and federal government, and some additional funds they raise through levies or other sources.
So for more than two decades, the state has provided an extra pot of money to reimburse schools for special-education costs that exceed state and federal funding. The special-education safety net, as it’s called, has given schools more than half a billion dollars since 1996.
But to even apply for that extra money, teams of teachers and administrators have to write and rewrite a document for each student that shows which specific services they need and how their goals will be measured. However, if that document and the district’s application contain even one error or omit some information, state rules require an oversight committee to automatically deny the reimbursement.
“Sometimes errors are made, but should the error result in no funding at all?” asked Glenna Gallo, who oversaw the work group as the state’s assistant superintendent of special education.
One of the work group’s proposed changes would allow districts to correct an error in their application or provide additional information. Another proposal would provide a portion of the reimbursement rather than deny such asks outright.
Gallo said the work group’s members also want lawmakers to make sure districts have direct access to federal funds that cover high-cost services, rather than pooling that money together with the state program.
Such a change could cost the state up to $14 million, according to Gallo.
Ultimately, she said, the proposed changes would reduce the amount of paperwork and bureaucracy needed to provide schools with the money they need to cover expensive services.
“It is important that we need to be compliant with the rules and requirements,” Gallo said.
But, “rather than spending multiple hours on applications … rather than multiple layers of review at the school district level, I want staff to reallocate that time and focus on the needs of their students.”
Members of the public can submit feedback on the work group’s recommendations through Aug. 7.