The decade in special education closed out with a new federal report confirming what families have long suspected: the system is still stacked in favor of school districts and against families, especially low-income and minority families.

Barriers remain for low income and minority families

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) examined how often families with disabled children exercised their rights under special education law when there was a disagreement with their school district about how to educate their child. The GAO also looked at what barriers prevented full access to those rights.

The report found that parents of low-income students and students of color were much less likely to access their legal rights than families of white students and wealthy students.

The two members of Congress who released the report, Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Florida) issued blistering statements: “This data shows that we need to look carefully at what’s preventing parents who are low income or of color from using resources that exist to help parents advocate for their kids, and then fix those problems.”   

In Washington state, advocacy help for families almost became a reality last year

Last year, during the 2019 legislative session in Washington, the state senate unanimously passed a bill to address the very issues raised in the GAO report. Prime sponsored by State Sen. John Braun (R-Centralia) and State Sen. Christine Rolfes (D-Bainbridge Island), the bill would have – among other provisions – provided access to an advocate at no cost to help families navigate the complex system of special education laws that often overwhelm families, particularly those with limited resources.

State Sen. David Frockt (D-Seattle)

During floor debate on the bill, State Sen. David Frockt (D-Seattle) captured the significance of the family advocate provision: “The empowerment and advocacy for those parents who don’t always have the help really, really important. This is an excellent bill.”  Click here to listen to his remarks.

The bill also created local special education advisory groups in every school district to provide families with a platform they could consistently use to engage their school district at the local level. This provision was especially important given that our state is one where education decisions about spending and governance are mostly done at the local level.

Unfortunately, Rep. Pat Sullivan (D-Covington) let the bill die without hearing, claiming he didn’t have enough time to take it up.

New year and new session

Bills that were filed in a previous session but didn’t pass can be brought again in a subsequent session. The 2020 legislative session is now underway in Olympia.

We now have evidence confirming what advocates and families have long known is an entrenched problem of denying families equal access under the law. Let’s hope this new GAO report can serve as a wake up call for the State House to follow through on the State Senate’s work in 2019 by passing the special education bill, or at least some of its provisions that will better support families.

Want to learn more?

Here are some of the main findings of the GAO report. You can read the entire report here.

  • Students from low-income families and minority students were less likely than affluent and white students to exercise their legal right to dispute resolution
  • The cost of hiring an attorney and fees for expert witnesses for due process hearings posed a “significant barrier” to parents who wanted to exercise their rights, especially low-income families.
  • In districts with a high percentage of students of color, it was less likely their families exercised their rights to resolve disputes about special education services.
  • Many parents reported feeling at a “disadvantage” due to an “imbalance of power.” Parents reported feeling reluctant to engage in disputes in the first place because they felt “disadvantaged by the school district’s knowledge and financial resources.” Note that school districts in the Puget Sound often hire expensive, private practice lawyers for these hearings, and those fees are paid for with tax dollars.
  • Very few attorneys are available to represent families in special education hearings on a pro bono basis.
  • The most common subjects of disagreement between school districts and families in special education were evaluations, placement, services and supports, and discipline.