Skip to main content

Washington schools chief calls for changes to better fund special education

caption: Washington state Superintendent Chris Reykdal delivered his annual state of public education address on Jan. 10, 2024, in Olympia.
Enlarge Icon
Washington state Superintendent Chris Reykdal delivered his annual state of public education address on Jan. 10, 2024, in Olympia.
KUOW Photo/Sami West

Washington’s chief of public schools wants the state to fully fund special education this legislative session.

That’s one of the top priorities state Superintendent Chris Reykdal laid out Wednesday during his annual state of education address.

At a time when districts across the state grapple with big budget shortfalls fueled by declining enrollment, Reykdal said this isn’t the time to cut corners on special education.

“This isn’t a choice. This isn’t a nice to have,” Reykdal said. “These are civil rights of kids based on federal and state law.”

Washington has increased its funding of public schools, especially in the wake of the 2012 McCleary decision mandating that the state fully fund schools "for the education of all children residing within its borders."

But the state limits how much money districts can get for students who receive special education services.

The cap is currently set at 15%, meaning that even if over 15% of a district’s student population receives special education services, that district wouldn’t receive any extra funding from the state. It’s meant as a safeguard to prevent the misuse of public funds. But Reykdal said the 15% cap can force districts to pick up more of the tab for special education costs.

Take Seattle Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, as an example. Administrators said last spring that they anticipated spending $125 million more on special education than they would get in revenue from the state for the current 2023-24 school year.

Reykdal acknowledged school closures and other budget cuts are inevitable for many districts across the state, amid high inflation and declining enrollment. But districts shouldn’t have to pull from their general funds to cover special education, he said, nor should they have to turn to voters to help come up with the cash.

“There are places where we want them to be very strategic surgeons here,” he said. “And then there are places where we say if school districts are still using local levies to fund and support students with disabilities, we clearly aren’t there yet.”

Last year, lawmakers increased special education funding by increasing the cap from 13.5% to 15%.

Reykdal also expressed support for a bill that would lower the threshold to pass local school bonds, which typically fund new school buildings or other construction projects.

In Washington , a local district bond election must be passed with a supermajority of 60%. Meanwhile, only a simple majority of 50% is required to elect a new governor or pass a local school levy, which can be used to fund learning initiatives and other basic school operations.

This, Reykdal said, is leading to widespread disrepair in schools across the state.

“The court has said the number one paramount, first and obvious obligation of the Legislature are your basic education rights for kids in our public schools,” Reykdal said. “And we’ve shown ample evidence that that’s already slipping and we’re on a flashing yellow right now.”

Some of Reykdal’s other top priorities for this year include getting Washington closer to providing free breakfast and lunch at all schools, continuing to improve mental health supports at schools, and boosting pay for paraeducators, who often support kids with disabilities in the classroom.

On average, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction says paraeducators make between about $22 and $27 an hour. Reykdal’s budget request calls for the state to raise the hourly wage by $7. Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed the Legislature fund a $3 hourly wage increase.

On Wednesday, Reykdal also touted some academic achievements in the Evergreen State over the last year, including record-high graduation rates. State data shows the four-year graduation rate for the class of 2023 was 83.6%. That's an increase of just over 1% from the previous year.

Why you can trust KUOW