Report Details Problems with Special Education in Washington

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A new report suggests that special education in the state of Washington is ineffective and costs too much.

The report, On the Creation of a Statewide Special Education Task Force, was given to the state Legislature, the Governor and the Superintendent of Public Instruction by the Washington State Governor’s Office of the Education Ombuds.

The report states that in 2013, 76% of high school students in the state had graduated within four years, yet only 54% of students with disabilities graduated in the same time span.

In addition, high school graduates with disabilities continue on to higher education at about half the rate of their peers.

Several school districts within the state were found to suspend or expel special education students two or three times as often as their peers.

Yet many of the students in special education programs do not have disabilities that would prevent them from attending the same classes as their peers so long as they received the proper support, suggesting that the lower numbers reported actually reflect flaws with the system, not the students.

The report asked the Legislature to create a “blue ribbon” commission to improve education opportunities for special needs students within the state.  The commission would be made up of experts that could offer recommendations to lawmakers, the governor,  and the state’s school chief.  The report states:

The evidence is clear that disabilities do not cause disparate outcomes, but that the system itself perpetuates limitations in expectations and false belief systems about who children with disabilities can be and how much they can achieve in their lifetime.

Special education in the state has typically focused on following federal law.  The report suggests that the focus needs to be moved to the results that most matter for children with disabilities, including academic achievement, high school graduation, and the ability to find work or continue their education after high school.  According to the report:

Basic compliance alone does not transform students’ lives by providing them real educational opportunities. In fact, for most students with disabilities, it translates to a life of unemployment, poverty and dependence.

We have experienced nearly 40 years of a special education system that is largely procedural, highly regulated, places parents in adversarial positions with the schools, and is more expensive than it needs to be — without achieving the positive outcomes that we desire for these students.

The US Department of Education announced this past June that special education programs will now be judged based on educational outcomes in addition to compliance with federal laws.

The largest school district in the state, Seattle Public Schools, still struggles in its compliance with federal laws due to several years of leadership turnover, organizational chaos and communication failures.

“Seattle is a district that needs to get it right, and we all share in the responsibility to ensure that it succeeds,” according to the report.