Damning Seattle Times Article on Special Education in Washington State

Update: see end of post


There are so many stories I want to write about and I do feel a bit overwhelmed.

But this story needs to be shared. Please let the Board, your City Councilperson, your King County Councilperson but especially your state elected know that SOMETHING NEEDS TO CHANGE.

I was reminded of this at last night's Board meeting when former head of the Seattle Special Education PTSA, Janis White, testified about the story in relation to her own child. She said district staff at suggested she send her child to a school named in The Seattle Times article. She said issues with this school - Northwest School of Innovative Learning (SOIL) - had been known about by SPS as far back as 2015 and that the Board - not the Superintendent - should step up.

Here's the Times' story - At Washington Special Education Schools, Years of Abuse Complaints and Lack of Academics by Mike Reicher and Lulu Ramadan. (all bold mine)

A therapist emailed about a teenage boy with severe autism, who had wailed for hours inside a locked room in her school, pleading to be let out. A local education official saw a teacher shove her foot in a student’s face as he lay on the ground and threaten to step on him. A special education director observed uncertified teachers struggling with no curriculum and urged the state to step in to protect “these extremely high-risk students.”

The alarming reports cataloged a failure to serve kids with disabilities at the Northwest School of Innovative Learning, a private school designed to cater to Washington’s most vulnerable students.

Despite the complaints, the state took no action to force changes at Northwest SOIL. Instead, it allowed the school to stay open and tap a pipeline of taxpayer money. In the five school years ending in 2021, Northwest SOIL collected at least $38 million and took in hundreds of public school students.

Northwest SOIL operated for years with few trained teachers, and its staff relied heavily on restraint and isolation. Some of the students made no academic progress and even regressed, as their parents were shut out of information that would be available at any public school.

As the article points out, NW SOIL appeared to be "warehousing" kids with a largely untrained staff.

The article also points out that most of the 140,000 Sped students in Washington State attend classes in schools in their home districts.

Washington, which has the nation’s second-highest dropout rate for special education students, has recently made strides by increasing the amount of time students spend in regular classrooms.

Sounds great but that statement is followed by this one:

But for those with the highest needs, the state has been heading in the opposite direction, sending more students out of traditional public schools.

Somehow the State doesn't seem to track much.

- Some of these private schools have decent reputations, but the state doesn’t track how many kids in private schools successfully return to their community schools — a key goal for many of the programs. 

- It doesn’t know how many are restrained or locked in isolation rooms. 

- Until two years ago, it couldn’t even count how many public school students attended these schools.

The key to all of this is that the State puts oversight onto the districts, not itself. 

And, 40 districts send their students to NW SOIL's campuses but, of course, for any given district, they only receive info on how their students are doing.

As is pointed out, sometimes districts can view students with behavior issues as "dangerous" or "threatening" and believe they need a speciality school. 

Another noteworthy part of the article is that the former top administrator at NW SOIL even said in a letter as she was leaving that her parent company wasn't supporting educational efforts and had cut staff hours.

State Superintendent Chris Reykdal said his office doesn't have the authority or resources to investigate private school issues even as his staff was told about NW SOIL problems. 

However,

Among the few reports state regulators do require are annual staffing lists. But even then, OSPI doesn’t consistently check them to see if staff are qualified to teach.


And so,

With no one responsible for scrutinizing the schools, even the most serious warning signs fell through the cracks, with devastating consequences.

State law requires nonpublic agencies to “promptly notify” the state and school districts of “any complaints it receives regarding services to students.” But the law doesn’t define what constitutes a complaint. There is no indication that Northwest SOIL notified state education officials of any police investigations.

While the law is unclear about who’s responsible for investigating problems, the state has powerful enforcement tools. Officials can force these private schools to comply with specific conditions or prohibit them from accepting public school students if they don't. That could have shut down Northwest SOIL. But the state never took those steps.

What about Seattle Public Schools?

As far back as 2014, Northwest SOIL was already drawing scrutiny from the state’s biggest school district.

Two special education officials from Seattle Public Schools visited the Redmond campus and reported that what they saw left them “literally speechless.” They said kids roamed freely around campus without supervision, and education was virtually nonexistent. They implored the district to withdraw all its students immediately.

Records show the district continued to send students each year but monitored Northwest SOIL more closely. After conditions seemed to improve, the school board voted in 2016 to keep using the school.

I wonder if the Board had ever seen that documentation from the two SPS Sped officials before they took that vote. I could go back and look at the Board meeting minutes or committee minutes but, given how the minutes had started to strip down to a bare minimum, it might say nothing.

Is it just Washington State? It could be.

The state reformed its funding model in 1995, realizing that school districts needed more money to educate students with disabilities. It developed a safety net fund to help districts pay for special education services.

But the program prohibits those funds from being used to train teachers in public schools. And while a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling on school financing, known as the McCleary decision, resulted in the Legislature sending billions of state dollars to public schools, lawmakers sidestepped special education.

With limited options, the districts came to rely on the private schools. The safety net model “made it easier for districts to say, ‘Let’s place the student at Northwest SOIL,’” said Tucker, the Pacific Lutheran professor.

The Times itself is suing NW SOIL for public disclosure documents because NW SOIL claim that even though they are using public funds, they are a private company. Not only that but the Times had asked 34 district for their "restraint and isolation records" and only got back documentation from 27 of them, with some documents missing.

The Bethel School District, for instance, destroyed a year's worth of reports “in error,” an official said, and had to retrieve paper copies of others from a warehouse. A district that sent dozens of students to Northwest SOIL turned over fewer restraint reports than a district that sent only one.

Let's review the many ways the State is letting Special Education students and their families down.

- But, unlike in other states, Washington lawmakers have not adopted key oversight and transparency regulations to protect students and taxpayers.

In Massachusetts, similar private schools are required to report all instances of restraint and isolation directly to the state, allowing central oversight.

- If Reykdal and other OSPI administrators do not have the regulatory power they need, why aren't they going to the Legislature? Because it's truly a waste of time and taxpayer dollars to warehouse students, not to mention not educating them. 

- Washington also doesn’t demand state inspections and has vague staffing obligations. It requires an unspecified number of certified teachers and only one special education teacher per school. A representative from a district has to visit every three years.

In contrast, California requires periodic state inspections, a teacher with special education credentials in every classroom and a specific ratio of students per teacher, typically 14-to-1.


- The state found that Northwest SOIL had violated state laws, including improperly restraining Christopher (a student) and withholding the staffer’s name.

It concluded with a reminder that the state has the power to revoke Northwest SOIL’s status.

Five months later, OSPI approved the school’s renewal without any conditions.

I wish I could say this surprises me but it doesn't. What does surprise me is that OSPI is doing so little to protect these students. 

Update:
An email from state representative Gerry Pollet to the Seattle delegation on Special Education funding, dated October 1, 2022:

To all parents and educators concerned about, and co-signing, letter on Seattle Public Schools’ budget limitations and inability to fund educators’ compensation, special education, etc. https://bit.ly/3E5yRXe (please share):

Washington State – and we as your legislators – have not met our “Paramount Duty” to fully fund ‘basic education.” As the letter to legislators points out, the costs to live in Seattle as an educator far exceed what the State bases its funding formula on – and, “nothing is more basic to education than our educators.”

The biggest hits to Seattle Public Schools’ (SPS’) budget and ability to serve students and pay living wages is the State’s cap on the number of students with disabilities that the State will provide Special Education funding for. This cap is unconscionable, and I believe, unconstitutional. The cap leaves SPS with over $100 million deficit this year!

That means $100 million in levy funds, which would otherwise fund compensation, additional learning services and opportunities must be devoted to providing the services required by federal and state laws to students with disabilities. The lack of funding, as every parent of a child who has had to fight to get a child an IEP knows, leads to a pervasive resistance to providing the services needed for children to be healthy and learn. Parents may spend years trying to have students evaluated for disabilities and having services provided – while their child falls irreversibly farther and farther behind.

I have championed efforts to remove this cap since I became a legislator. We have encountered great resistance – winning only a small increase to serve 13.5% of students. 

Closely related is the State’s funding formula providing funds for basically one paraeducator / instructional aide per grade in an elementary school of 450 students, even though students’ learning needs and IEPs may require several IAs per grade. Again, the District’s levy must pay for these staff – whose salaries are truly at an unconscionably low level.

In 2022, we finally passed an 8 fold increase in State funding for school nurses and social workers, which I helped champion, increasing from the State paying for just .07 of a nurse per elementary school to paying for each school to have more than a half time nurse.

In January, I will be offering legislation to remove the unconscionable cap on the number of students for which the State provides special education funds coupled with a major overhaul of evaluations to have meaningful timelines and the State paying for the evaluations.

If successful, Seattle would expect to receive an additional $100 million in funding for the 2023-24 school year and thousands of students would receive the services and supports they need to learn and be healthy.

What will it take to succeed? Please ask to have parent-educator meetings with your legislators (and every candidate) and ask if them to commit to supporting lifting the cap on State funding for students with disabilities. Coordinate with your PTSA, SEA and other organizations and share out the results of those meetings with legislators.

For residents of the 46th, I’m available to meet and to also join you to discuss SPS and education funding and other issues at your PTSA meetings. 

Text, letter

Description automatically generated

Rep. Gerry Pollet,

46th District

Gerry.pollet@leg.wa.gov




Comments

Anonymous said…
SPS's superintendent ordered SPS teachers not to teach anything in March 2020. Did OSPI care? Nope.

"We were told not to deliver specially-designed instruction," one SPS special education teacher told KUOW. "I just couldn't believe it."

https://www.kuow.org/stories/families-of-seattle-special-education-students

Signed,
OSPI's Dentures

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