Controversial Washington State Senate Bill 5315 Jeopardizes Special Needs Children

By  //  February 8, 2023

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A controversial new bill, Washington State Senate Bill 5315 was introduced by Senator Claire Wilson and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal, threatens the State’s ability to deliver services to the children who need them most.

If Senate Bill 5315 is enacted, it will close the state’s most valuable services for at-risk kids, the Specialized Special Education Schools. 

These private schools, which have a non-public agency (NPA) designation, have served the developmentally challenged for over 30 years.

Those who work with disabled children are voicing their strong opposition to the bill.  

One Special Ed teacher in a Washington public school 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 the population of student needs.”

The Specialized Special Education schools accept public school children and tax dollars.  The schools accept referrals from school districts’ Special Education departments, who have neither the resources nor the staffing to care for the special needs kids.

Specialized Special Education Schools provide Least Restrictive Environments (LREs) for the disabled. The Federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004 required that developmentally challenged children be placed in LREs to aid their learning. 

Non-public agency (NPA) Schools Vital to Special Needs Kids

As an example of how important LREs are to special needs children, consider these cases:

Ashley has such severe mental and physical disabilities that she can only be in school two hours a day.  She needs the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) of working in a one-to-one setting with a teacher.

Jose is a severely autistic boy who requires working one-to-one with his teacher because his affliction prevents him from being around one or two other kids at a time.

The quadriplegic Paul cannot be in a regular school since he is on a breathing machine and feeding tube.  His LRE has provided a teacher in his home to help him see a computer screen and type with one finger.

If Senate Bill 5315 is enacted, the services that care for these vulnerable children will be lost.

Many parents of disabled children have said that access to NPA (non-public agency) schools and to the LRE has made a great difference to their children’s lives and learning.  “We were hopeless and out of options,” one parent confessed.  “This school was our last resort, and it has been a lifesaver.”

A child who graduated from an NPA school and is now in college said, “I was caught at my public school getting ready to jump off the roof.  MY NPA saved my life, literally. Now I’m doing great.”

It is ironic that Superintendent Reykdal has admitted in the past that public schools are overwhelmed by the needs of students with disabilities. But now, 3000 special needs children may be left without a school or services.  Also, if this bill passes, the school district will not comply with the Federal Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

IDEA guarantees free public education for eligible students with disabilities.  OSPI, in turn, is required to ensure the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) for each child which is indispensable to the child’s learning.

NPA schools tailor learning experiences to each special needs child. LRE guides a child’s education program, often customizing learning to one-to-one teaching or a tiny class size.

Education experts say that students in crisis often need immediate support. The bureaucracy and red tape in this bill could jeopardize that support.

Why is SB 5315 Being Introduced Now?

Opponents to this bill believe that it is being introduced now following an article in the Seattle Times about the Northwest School of Innovative Learning, a therapeutic agency that calls itself a school.  It is an NPA-approved facility that is owned by a subsidiary of Universal Health Services, one of the nation’s largest healthcare corporations.

The article about Northwest SOIL claimed that parents, school district administrators and others had complained about the school/agency, but OSPI did not address the problems.  The article implied that criticism of Northwest SOIL also applied to other NPA-approved schools. Over the five years ending in 2021, the school received more than $38 million in taxpayer funds.

On January 9, 2023, Reykdal, the Superintendent, said that his budget was facing a severe shortfall in his annual State of the Schools address.

Senate Bill 5315 dropped three days later, on January 12.

Critics of the bill say that if it is enacted, many of the schools serving special needs kids will close.  Why would state legislators jeopardize vulnerable children for the sake of a budget?

Opponents to the bill also say that specialized schools need to move quickly to address the needs of children in crisis.  The layers of bureaucracy in this bill will hamper moving fast.

Education experts believe that the ability of NPAs (non-public agencies) to serve children who are developmentally challenged will be severely limited if this bill passes.

They also believe that the State’s special education services will be compromised, creating new burdens for OSPI.  If there are delays in placing special needs kids in the proper schools due to this bill, the children’s progress is at risk.

Although the investigative article in the Seattle Times focused on one therapeutic agency, the bill assumes that all the NPAs are guilty of misconduct. Education experts say this is incorrect and misleading. There are many devoted, highly trained teachers in the State’s NPAs. It is unfair to paint all  of them with the same brush as the staff at the Northwest SOIL.

Those who oppose the bill call for eliminating the administrative hurdles for NPA programs.  Opponents to the bill ask the State to give these disabled children the learning environments they need to succeed in school and in life.

You Can Make a Difference

You, the Washington voter, can make a difference and save these specialized special ed schools.  Call or email Senator Claire Wilson and OPSI Superintendent Chris Reykdal today to register your opposition to SB 5315.

If you are a parent or a concerned community member, you must question the priorities of State legislators who want to deny services to at-risk children just to balance a budget.

It makes no sense.  Help thousands of developmentally challenged children so they will not be cut off from their Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) that is crucial to their learning.