Washington lawmakers seek to boost special education funding

The Washington House of Representatives passed a bill unanimously on Tuesday to boost special education funding by an additional $185 million in the upcoming years.

Despite aligning with Gov. Jay Inslee’s request, critics argue that the increase falls short of meeting the needs.

However, legislative leaders, including majority Democrats, express concerns regarding potential strain on the state budget with further increases and the possibility of certain schools claiming more funding than necessary if limits are removed.

House Bill 2180 will now permit up to 17.25% of a district’s population to receive support services for speech therapy and instructional aides, a rise from the previous 13.5% to 15%. This implies that if 20% of the district’s population requires special education services, the district cannot receive additional funds for the remaining 5%.

According to the bill’s fiscal note, the state is projected to invest approximately $28.6 million more in special education in the 2023-2025 budget, $76.5 million from 2025-2027, and $80 million from 2027-2029.

Approval of the bill would necessitate separate budget allocation by lawmakers to implement the proposed increase; failure to do so would render the policy ineffective.

Rep. Gerry Pollet, the chief sponsor of HB 2180 from Seattle, emphasized that it is unacceptable and potentially unconstitutional for Washington to not allocate special education funding for all eligible children.

Education official Chris Reykdal highlighted in 2023 that the funding cap violates federal law. This limitation disproportionately affects smaller-budget rural districts like Ocean Beach, where 22% of students would qualify for special education funding if the cap is lifted, as mentioned in reports.

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have urged the Legislature to completely eliminate the funding cap. During the House debate, Republican legislators, including Rep. Travis Couture from Allyn, strongly criticized the cap, with Couture proposing an amendment for its removal.

Couture, a parent of children with disabilities, argued that removing the cap would entail minimal financial implications for the Legislature.

“I have to go home tonight and look my kids in the eyes and talk to families just like mine who go through the hell of IEP meetings and trying to get services and supports that are so desperately under-resourced,” Couture expressed, referring to individualized education plan meetings for special education students. He added, “At least I think I can go back tonight and look at them and say I tried everything that I could.”

Pollet, who has championed the initiative to eradicate the cap in previous years, urged fellow lawmakers to vote against Couture’s amendment, asserting that his original bill would expedite funding provision.

Pollet’s earlier bill aiming to gradually eliminate the cap by 2027-2028 was amended before passage to set the current 15% limit.

Democratic leaders have pledged additional support for school funding, including enhancing compensation for paraeducators.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig from Spokane acknowledged that removing the cap would necessitate budget cuts elsewhere and welcomed input from Republicans on identifying areas for reduction.

“[Republicans] think they can fund everything without cutting anything,” remarked Billig.

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