Perhaps you clicked on the title thinking, "Oh, another NCLB post." No. I wish it were. NCLB issues tend to get more media play. This problem long preceded NCLB... and despite having Democrats in control of every aspect of the Washington State government, this one shows no sign of being resolved.
In the school district I work for, Unfunded Mandates has been the catch phrase of the past several years. It has been a polite way for our Superintendent to say, "We're not getting enough Special Education funding, and it's sucking the life out of everything else."
The problem has become so severe that our school district and 10 others in the state filed suit. We argued that the Washington State Legislature has habitually violated its constitutional duty to provide adequate funding for educating Special Education students. This suit was filed September 30, 2004... after several delays the case finally came to a close this past November, 2006. What was the result?
After nearly two and a half years of holding our breaths, we're still waiting. The ruling has not been issued yet, the oxygen is gone, and the time has come to make severe budget cuts. This year the district I work for must cut 10.5 million from its budget. An elementary school closure is imminent. Arguably, 9 million of this is the direct result of Special Education costs. How did it get this bad?
The Special Education funding model is fubar. We are required by law to provide Individualized Education Programs for students that qualify for Special Education. This tailor-made instruction is supposed to help each student achieve academic standards (a tale for another time). However, the state funds each Special Education student identically, whether it is a student with a mild speech impediment, or a student who is autistic and needs constant one-on-one supervision.
The next problem is the funding cap. An artificial cap was placed on Special Education funding, supposedly to deter school districts from classifying students as Special Ed just to receive extra cash. This has happened in other states, but there is no evidence of that in Washington. Our state policies dictating which students qualify for Special Ed are very strict. Regardless, we are preemptively penalized, as the state chooses to fund only 12.7% of our total student population. If we have more Special Education students than that, too bad.
This is the chasm we are falling into. My school district is located in a city that prides itself on its hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and specialists. We are THE central location for medical care in Eastern Washington, Northern Idaho, and some of Montana as well. I am not a parent of a disabled child, but if I was... this is the city I would want to live in. This is where the professional resources are.
The miracles of modern medicine have bent the cap in more ways than one. More premature children are surviving. More children who are born with severe medical issues are living much longer. This huge blessing in our society has the side-effect of increasing the needs of the population of our young people relative to the total population. Some of our students just need a little bit of extra help to get up to speed. Later in life, you would never know it. But, the state is choosing not to pay for it.
Meanwhile, I am growing increasingly concerned about the parents of our General Ed students. Each year we cut more "enrichment programs". One year it was elementary sports and library services. What will it be this year? Anything that does not generate higher test scores is under the axe. How long can this continue before parents of students without disabilities catch on? In our school district, they get less education for their tax dollar than they would elsewhere.
The Unfunded Mandates codeword can only obfuscate the issue for so long. Those that do catch on, move their students to other districts or into private schools. Hence, our overall enrollment is declining while our Special Ed enrollment is increasing with no relief in sight. This past week the Superintendent proposed closing an elementary school.
Some in our district were hopeful that Judge Thomas McPhee would make his ruling before the legislature's session began. But, we have not heard a word. So, this year the hemorrhaging will continue. But, what about that $64 million increase in Washington State Education funding?
Governor Christine Gregoire got some great publicity recently for pledging to use some of our surplus to increase education funding. If those dollars were funneled directly into Special Education, there would still be a $40 million dollar deficit. Unfortunately, much of those funds are targeted for specific programs like higher education and early childhood education.
The sad thing is, those programs need funding too. We all do. If our state is ever forced to fix the Special Education funding model (as our constitution dictates), then what? Where is the money going to come from? Where is the burden going to be shifted?
Honestly, I don't know. But our school district has shouldered it for long enough.
PS. I have no special authority to speak for Spokane Public Schools. I'm just a cog in the machine who has followed the issue closely and hopes to share it with others.