David Thompson, Tech Times Feb. 6, 2023

The most vulnerable children in our state are at risk again.

As though it is not enough that special needs children need to live with conditions like autism, learning difficulties, and paralysis, the recent Washington State Senate Bill 5315 will affect them in profound ways, jeopardizing their learning progress.

On January 12, 2023, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), Chris Reykdal, and Senator Claire Wilson dropped Senate Bill 5315. The bill calls for shuttering one of the state’s education prizes, the Specialized Special Education Schools. These unique private schools educate and care for the most at-risk population of special needs children. For over 30 years, these schools, which accept public school children and tax dollars, have served the developmentally challenged. They do so in concert with school district Special Education departments that lack the capacity and resources these children need.

The Federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004 states that every student must be placed in their Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). The special ed schools, approved private schools with a non-public agency (NPA) designation, provide the LREs for many students.

Senator Claire Wilson and OSPI Superintendent Reykdal want to see the bill pass to balance their budgets. But the risks to disabled children are immense. It’s already difficult to get the funding and staffing the developmentally challenged need. If this bill passes, access to programs they need will be further limited.

Here are examples of special needs youngsters who will be affected if SB 5315 passes:

Ashley, whose mental and physical disabilities are so severe she can only start school at 1 p.m. and stay for two hours, needs the LRE of working in a one-to-one setting with a teacher.

Jose has severe autism and cannot be around more than one or two other children at a time. His LRE requires working one-to-one with his teacher.

Paul is a quadriplegic who is on a breathing machine and feeding tube. He cannot be in a regular school, but his LRE involves having a teacher in his home, creating a way for him to see a computer screen and type with one finger.

If this bill passes, the LREs and safe teaching environments of these children may be lost. It doesn’t make sense to put the state’s most vulnerable youngsters at risk.

Why is this Campaign Emerging Now?

The impetus for this bill emerges from an investigative article published in the Seattle Times about a therapeutic agency that calls itself a school. This agency is a designated NPA-approved facility. This designation allows school districts to contract out services. The article blamed this NPA-approved agency and implied that the criticism included all NPA-approved schools.

The article claimed that OSPI should have addressed problems at the largest chain of such schools, the Northwest School of Innovative Learning, despite complaints from parents, school district administrators, and others.  Northwest SOIL is owned by a subsidiary of Universal Health Services, one of the nation’s largest healthcare corporations. The school accepts only public funds for tuition and took in more than $38 million in taxpayer funds over the five school years ending in 2021.

The timing of the article coincided with the school budget process. On January 9, 2023, Reykdal, the Superintendent, gave his annual State of Schools address. He emphasized the shortfall of funds looming ahead. Then, on January 12, Senate Bill 5315 dropped without warning.

If the bill is enacted, many of the schools will close. But the OSPI Superintendent will make his budget look better. The bill includes layers of bureaucracy that will hamstring the ability of specialized schools to move quickly to address the needs of the state’s most vulnerable children.

The Dilemma for Special Needs Children

A heartbreaking dilemma exists here. In his State of the Schools address, the Superintendent admitted that public schools “have a shortage of support for students with disabilities.”

Yet if this bill passes, about 3000 special needs children will be left without a school or services to teach them, and the school district will not comply with the Federal Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This act guarantees free appropriate public education for eligible students with disabilities. Within that law, OSPI is required to ensure the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) for each child.  LRE is a principle that guides a child’s education program: whether that be tiny class sizes or one-to-one teaching.  LRE allows NPA private schools to customize the experience according to each youngster’s needs.

Access to NPA schools and to the LRE has made life-changing differences in the lives of parents of disabled children. One parent said, “We were hopeless and out of options. This school was our last resort, and it has been a lifesaver.” A child who graduated from an NPA school admitted, “I was caught at my public school getting ready to jump off the roof. My NPA saved my life, literally.  Today I am in college and doing great.”

Consider what a Special Ed teacher in a Washington public school recently said, “I know there is a shortage of Special Ed teachers, but I will leave the field if they take away this resource from us. We just don’t have the staffing and ability to meet this population of student needs.”

The Bill’s Effects

Education and mental health experts have weighed in on the effects of SB 5315. They believe the bill would prevent students in crisis from getting immediate and appropriate support. The bill would also complicate the provision of special education services in our state.

The bill would create new administrative burdens for OSPI. For example, it would require that OSPI, in conjunction with the district, inspect an NPA site before awarding a contract. Districts already perform site visits. If there are delays due to increased visits, the delays could harm a student in crisis.

Most importantly, the bill would impede the ability of NPAs (non-public agencies) to serve Washington’s disabled students effectively.

The bill ignores the systems in place for NPAs and assumes all are guilty of misconduct. This is unfair to the hundreds of staff in the state’s NPAs who devote their lives to serving developmentally challenged children.

Public and private school educators have worked with families to save their children’s lives and provide them with an opportunity to fulfill their dreams.

SB 5315 would hurt students who have already been marginalized by a system that puts policy before people. It is time to decry any new hurdles for NPA programs that would delay providing services to students in crisis.

How You Can Help

The voters in the state of Washington can help. Call or email Senator Claire Wilson and OSPI Superintendent Chris Reykdal. Just because they need to cut a budget does not justify taking services away from the children who need them the most.

If you don’t act now, there will be thousands of disabled children whose education will be jeopardized. Within months, they will be cut off from their Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).

Urge these public officials not to approve SB 5315. Protect our children!