In 2013, 76 percent of Washington’s students graduated from high school within four years, but only about 54 percent of students with disabilities got their diplomas on time.
Graduates with disabilities move on to higher education at less than half the rate of their peers.
And in several large Washington school districts, special education students are between 2 and 3 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their peers.
But the vast majority of children in special education do not have disabilities that prevent them from tackling the same rigorous academic subjects as general education students if they get the proper support, so those low numbers reflect shortcomings in the system, not the students.
Those are among the findings of a report to the state Legislature released Wednesday detailing the need for a statewide “blue ribbon” commission to improve the way the state’s schools educate children with special needs.
The Legislature directed the Governor’s Office of the Education Ombuds to produce the report, which calls for the creation of an expert commission that can make recommendations to lawmakers, the governor, and the state’s school chief.
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.
Historically, special education has been focused on complying with federal law, but not on the results that matter most to children with disabilities and their parents — academic achievement, high school graduation and opportunities for work and further education, according to the report, which said:
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.
That jibes with the conclusions of the U.S. Department of Education, which announced in June that it will now judge special-education programs on educational results as well as procedural compliance.
The state’s largest school system, Seattle Public Schools, is still struggling with that basic compliance, however, after another year of leadership turnover, organizational chaos and widespread failures to communicate.
“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.