Rep. Chris Corry: Give families with special needs children up to $15,000 to pay for education

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Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal says providing more money for special education will improve results for families and children, but he doesn't want families to choose the learning program that works best for them.

Lawmakers recently increased special-education funding by $1 billion, boosting it from $1.9 billion in 2017-19 to $2.9 billion in 2019-21 — a stunning 52 percent increase over two years. Yet 40 percent of Washington's special-needs students fail to graduate from their assigned, traditional high schools.

Families of special-needs students deserve better than the current approach of sending more money to a rigid system that blindly assigns kids to schools based on ZIP codes.

Special-needs children are legally entitled to an education that works for them, so they can achieve their fullest human potential. They overcome conditions like sight loss, autism and dyslexia.

Lawmakers should show compassion and imagination by providing up to $15,000 a year in direct education aid to these families in the form of a tax-free Education Savings Account (ESA). Families could then buy specialized education services, if needed, from private tutors and private schools for their children. The state treasurer would audit ESAs to certify the money is used for education purposes. Washington state already maintains a list of private schools, including religious schools, that are approved to educate special-needs children at public expense, and since the state currently spends over $20,000 to educate each special-needs student, this proposal would save money.

In other states, this idea is routine. Arizona, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee already provide ESAs to special-needs families. Twelve states give special-needs families direct assistance to attend private schools, and South Carolina provides both a tax credit scholarship and a direct tax credit to help such families.

Washington's special-education system is highly centralized and bureaucratic. Federal law requires districts to provide each special-needs child a “free, appropriate public education.” To comply with federal law, districts write Individual Education Plans for each child. In practice, parents often complain that IEPs are too vague and that their children don't receive an appropriate public education. It can take six months or more just to get school officials to accept that a child really does have special needs.

TV, radio and social media are filled with examples of school districts failing special-needs students. For example, KING-5 TV investigative reporter Susannah Frame recently covered the failure of the wealthy Lake Washington School District to teach twin 6-year-old boys how to read. Teachers failed to recognize they have severe dyslexia. The boys were fortunate. Their parents had the means to enroll them in an expensive private school skilled at teaching dyslexic students to read.

Families with autistic children have similar complaints. The public schools lag in using the latest behavioral intervention models that have proved successful with autistic children.

Administrators of the public schools always say the solution is more money. But adding more money won't help children stymied by outdated teaching methods, insensitive bureaucracies, and restrictive union rules.

More money will not correct the illogic of imposing a standardized public education system upon the unique learning needs of these vulnerable children.

If officials provided fully funded Education Savings Accounts, families with special needs would receive help immediately, without having to navigate endless rounds of forms, assessments and meetings. That is what real caring about special-needs children would look like.

Rep. Chris Corry, R-Yakima, 14th Legislative District and Liv Finne, director of the Center of Education for the Washington Policy Center.

State Representative Chris Corry, 14th Legislative District
410 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
360-786-7810 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000