Washington state Legislature likely to give public school districts more money for special education


OLYMPIA — Washington state likely will start spending more money to help public schools support K-12 students with special needs.

With minutes to spare before their 5 p.m. deadline to vote on a bill Friday, state senators unanimously advanced a proposed law that would increase the cap on the percentage of a district's student body that receives state funding for special education support services, including instructional teacher's aides and speech therapy.

Both chambers of the state Legislature fully supported  raising the amount school districts get from the state to pay for special education. If signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, districts will be subsidized for special education programs covering 17.5% of their student bodies. That's up from 15%.  The increase will cost the state  $185 million  over the next few years.

In 2023, the Legislature increased its special education funding cap from 13.5% to 15%. Months later, Gov. Inslee called on the state to use part of its supplemental funding budget to increase the cap again this year.

Although the new cap aligns with Inslee's budget request, some education experts and lawmakers fear the new proposed limit will still fall short and leave children without essential supports.

Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal and some legislators have spoken out in saying another small increase won't be enough to help the number of students who need support in some districts. Reykdal said earlier this year that lawmakers should potentially consider removing the state's special education funding cap altogether.

In 2023, Reykdal said the funding cap broke federal law, citing a mandate requiring U.S. public schools to provide specialized educational services to all children with a disability recognized under the Individuals with Disability Education Act.

During the 2021-2022 academic year, more than half of Washington's 295 school districts required special education support for more than 13.5% of their students, according to a report by the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Washington's 2024 legislative session is scheduled to adjourn Thursday, after 60 days of lawmaking action.