We believe Washington state needs to assess and adjust how we accommodate and support the diverse and complex needs of students in public schools. Human potential is our state’s most important asset. When we design schools and learning to be accessible and inclusive, we reach the greatest number of learners – and ultimately benefit from what they later contribute to our communities.

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  • Far too many students in Washington are not reaching their full human potential. This impacts our families, our communities, and our economy
  • In Washington, we push out students with disabilities. Suspensions and expulsions are 2.5 times higher for students with disabilities. Our drop-out rate for students with disabilities is one of the nation’s highest, while our inclusion rate is one of the nation’s lowest. Others do better, and so can we
  • Our special education system is not adequately funded and resources are not effectively deployed, therefore local education agencies have to backfill with unreliable local levy money that should be allocated for other purposes
  • Educators are not provided adequate training to support a more inclusive environment


1. Thriving School Communities

  • Every student attends a school where they are valued, believed in, and seen. Where they can form strong friendships and actively participate in activities. Where learning is joyful. Where their cultures are honored and celebrated. Where every member of the school community—including parents, educators, and students—build collaborative and respectful relationships in service of student success.

2. Environments Designed for Every Learner

  • Every student attends a school where the learning environment is designed to meet their needs, including physical, academic, social emotional, communication, and sensory needs. Where material is presented in multiple formats, students have multiple ways to engage with and show learning, and learning is relevant to students’ goals. Where information is provided in the language and format that meets the needs of students and families and is culturally responsive, physical space is accessibly designed, and adaptive technology is integrated into the learning environment.

3. Equitable and Sufficient Resources

  • Every student attends schools where educators are supported, prepared, and receive training in inclusive practices and universally designed learning to support diverse learners. Where the right supports and resources are available in every classroom, so that every student gets what they need, when they need it. Where students have access to the supports, staff, services, and technology they need to be successful through adequate state funding for special and general education.

4. Successful and Meaningful Transitions

  • Every student attends a school where they can learn, grow, and eventually transition successfully to post-secondary education, work, and life. Where they are offered authentic choices and supported in setting goals, making decisions and creating meaningful pathways. Where employers, postsecondary institutions, and K-12 schools collaborate to prepare and support students.


  • In order to meet the diverse needs of students, schools must receive the resources and technical assistance they need to provide flexible learning environments and a robust multi-tiered system of support
  • Educators and support staff need professional development and training to develop and implement inclusive practices
  • Teacher prep programs need to embed principles of universal design into their general education programs
  • Information and communications must be accessible, being provided in multiple languages and multiple formats

What is Special Education?

When students with disabilities cannot access or make progress with the general curriculum, they may qualify for special education services. These include specially designed instruction and related supports that meet their unique needs and ensure they have a free and appropriate education.

Special education is not a place, and students have the right to an education in the least restrictive environment. The services are put in place to make learning accessible and they can often be incorporated into a general education classroom. Supports can include things like assistive technology, a teaching aide, or therapies to teach skills that are not typically developing.

To be eligible for special education services under IDEA, students must meet all three of the following criteria:

  • The student must have a qualifying disability or disabilities
  • The student’s disability/disabilities must adversely affect their ability to access general education curriculum
  • The student’s unique needs cannot be addressed solely through accommodations; the student requires specially designed instruction and related services

Least restrictive environment means:

  • To the maximum extent appropriate, students receiving special education services are educated in the general education environment with students who are nondisabled; and
  • Special classes, separate schooling or other removal of students eligible for special education from the general educational environment occurs only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in general education classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.

Special education services are part of the state’s program of basic education and are a legal right under both Washington’s state constitution and federal law.

You can read Washington’s law on special education here:

You can read about the federal law here:

The state Superintendent of Public Instruction also provides guidance for families here.

Students with disabilities – regardless of whether they qualify for special education services under IDEA – also have federal protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

What is Inclusive Learning?

When school environments are designed to be inclusive, fewer people need additional supports to access the general curriculum, and school staff has more professional capacity to work with those who do. All students feel like they belong.

Common inclusive teaching practices include:

  • Differentiated instruction, to increase student engagement
  • Academic supports, to provide greater access to the curriculum
  • Behavior supports, to create a positive learning environment
  • Respect for diversity, to create a welcoming environment, and
  • Effective use of resources, to maximize availability of staff and materials

Some people confuse integration and inclusion. Integration is allowing someone in, but only to the extent they can adapt to the environment of the majority. Inclusion is adapting the environment to make it accessible to the maximum number of people. An example of inclusive learning is Universal Design for Learning, an educational framework based on research in the learning sciences, including cognitive neuroscience, that guides the development of flexible learning environments that can accommodate individual learning differences.

The following definitions come from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities:

Exclusion: Occurs when students are prevented from or denied access to education.

  • For instance, prior to IDEA’s predecessor passing in 1975, public schools labeled some children as uneducable and refused to enroll them. Today, we see exclusion manifest in disproportionate discipline and widespread, informal practices where parents are asked to pick up their child early.

Segregation occurs when the education of students with disabilities is provided in a separate environment, in isolation from students without disabilities.

  • This could be a separate school within a school district, or a contained classroom

Integration is a process of placing students with disabilities in mainstream settings, if they can adjust to the standardized settings of those environments

Inclusion is a process where the school changes to meet the requirements of students with disabilities. Every student feels like they belong. This can involve changes in teaching methods, structures, approaches and strategies to overcome barriers and improve accessibility.

  • An example of an inclusive approach is Universal Design for Learning. It asks educators to rethink the what, how, and why of learning to give all students equal opportunity. For instance:
    • What: Provide various ways to acquire, process and integrate information. For instance, use vision, hearing and touch to teach about a forest ecosystem.
    • How: Allow multiple ways to navigate and demonstrate learning. Let a student create a game instead of writing an essay.
    • Why: Engage learners in a variety of ways to tap their interests, challenge them appropriately and motivate them. This involves classroom strategies like group projects as well as internal strategies: Does the student need help regulating emotions? What about goal setting?

What is Universal Design for Learning?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework based on research in learning sciences, including cognitive neuroscience, that guides the development of flexible learning environments that can accommodate individual learning differences by anticipating barriers within the environment (including the curriculum) and planning for them in advance. It recognizes each student learns in a unique manner and offers flexible ways to learn and multiple ways to meet expectations. It empowers teachers to think differently about their practice and focuses on educational outcomes for all, including students with disabilities.

Definitions of Commons Terms in the Special Education Landscape

Accessibility – The design of products, devices, services, or environments for people with disabilities. In education, this can include physical spaces, teaching and communication methods, education materials and curriculum, and support services. Language and cultural considerations can also come into play.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – A federal civil rights law that makes it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities in places of public accommodation, including schools, workplaces, child care centers, businesses and public spaces.

Child Find – A legal requirement in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that schools find and screen all children (birth through age 21) who may have disabilities and who may be entitled to special education services.

Disability – Under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) disability is a legal term that means a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. IDEA covers certain disabilities in certain situations, but ADA and Section 504 cover all people with all disabilities.

Disabilities covered by IDEA

  • Autism
  • Deaf-blindness
  • Deafness
  • Developmental delays – up to age 8
  • Emotional behavior disorder
  • Hearing impairment
  • Intellectual disability
  • Multiple disabilities
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Other health impairment (including ADHD)
  • Specific learning disability (including dyslexia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia, and other learning needs)
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Visual impairment, including blindness

A free and appropriate public education (FAPE) is a right of all children in the United States. It applies under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act for all students with disabilities, as well as under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), for qualifying students. Schools are not allowed to charge families for their child’s special education services. FAPE also stipulates that students with disabilities and students without disabilities must be placed in the same setting, to the maximum extent appropriate to the education needs of the students with disabilities.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) – A federal law that affirms a child’s right to a free and appropriate public education in the least restricted environment. Students must have qualifying disabilities and those disabilities must interfere with their ability to access or progress in the general education curriculum.

Individualized Educational Program (IEP) – An IEP outlines the special education services and supports that each student served under IDEA needs, as identified through an evaluation of a student’s strengths and areas of growth, to access a free and appropriate public education. An IEP guarantees certain legal protections. The team involved in developing, maintaining, and amending a student’s IEP includes: the student, a parent or guardian, at least one of the student’s general education teachers, a special education teacher, a qualified district representative, a person who can interpret and relate evaluation results, and other individuals as determined by the district or parent/guardian.

Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) is an educational setting that prioritizes the inclusion of students with disabilities in a general education setting with their peers without disabilities whenever possible. All students are general education students first.

504 Plan – Available to all students with physical or mental impairments attending schools that receive federal funding. The Rehabilitation Act is a federal civil rights law that protects people with disabilities; Section 504 plans cover accommodations and related services that students with disabilities need to access a free and appropriate education in a general education setting. 504 plans do not provide individualized instruction.

Definitions of Special Education Funding Terms

Basic Education – A program of instruction that must be funded by the state and that is deemed by the legislature to comply with the requirements of Article IX, section 1 of the state Constitution, which states that “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex,” and is adopted pursuant to Article IX, section 2 of the state Constitution, which states that “The legislature shall provide for a general and uniform system of public schools.” It includes special education services. The legislature defines the program of basic education as that which is necessary to provide the opportunity to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to meet the state-established high school graduation requirements that are intended to allow students to have the opportunity to graduate with a meaningful diploma that prepares them for postsecondary education, gainful employment, and citizenship.

The cap – Washington state does not allocate based on total number of qualifying special education students. It caps each districts’ special education allocation at 13.5 percent of annual average, resident, full-time equivalent students.

Local excess levies are short-term, locally assessed property taxes that are paid in addition to the state property tax. School districts can ask voters to pass a local excess levy to pay for enhancement services, but not to pay for basic education.

Multiplier – The state funding formula uses a multiplier to figure the supplemental allocations for special education. For students with disabilities in kindergarten to age 21, this formula is the local education authority’s Basic Education Allocation multiplied by the annual average headcount of special education students, multiplied by .9609 – up to 13.5 percent of annual average K–12 resident full time equivalent students.

Safety net funding – Washington state makes funds available to districts with demonstrated needs for special education funding beyond the amounts provided by the funding formula. Applications can be submitted for High Need Individuals, as well as for Community Impact to support communities that draw a larger number of families with children who need special education services.