The special education system in Washington state is a complex web whose strands bring together many different people. There are students receiving special education services, parents and guardians, educators, school administrators, local advocates, community organizations and state and federal governments.

As Washington faces some of the poorest outcomes in the country for students with disabilities, each has a role to play and a perspective to share. To hear from them all, Investing in Student Potential is hitting the road to bring communities together for an open conversation and the chance to re-imagine special education in Washington state.

So far, we’ve held two listening tour events in Olympia and Yakima. Thank you to everyone who attended and contributed ideas. Here’s a sampling of what we’ve learned so far.

Kids want to be in classrooms

The needs of students requiring special education services are varied, but one message remains consistent: kids want to be in classrooms with their peers. “I don’t like it when I have to leave class for the resource room,” said one student in Yakima. Supporting special education students means doing so in the classroom alongside their grade-level peers, with additional one-on-one support to help them meet learning goals.

Being in the general education classroom setting also means connecting more with other students and reducing the isolation students receiving special education services often feel. When asked what would make a fantastic school year, one student said simply: “I would be able to meet people.”

Parents need more information and each other’s support

For parents and guardians in the room, their main priority is getting the support their child needs to thrive. But we heard that finding the right resources and navigating our complicated system is tough. For some, it feels like a full-time job. Because of this, parents expressed interest in support groups where parents could share with others who understand.

Parents also shared what was making a difference for their child. In one school, a focus on social-emotional growth and bullying prevention had made a big impact. When asked what an inclusive school would look, like one parent in Olympia said it came down to three things: “When they feel that their learning style is acknowledged and accommodated, when they want to go to school every day, and when they feel a connection with other students, teachers, and staff.”

Teachers can make a big difference, and they need more training

Teachers and paraeducators spend the most time with students and can have a huge effect on their learning. But educators acknowledge they need more skills and understanding to make their classrooms inclusive. 

Building the technical knowledge and capacity of current general and special education staff is key to reducing barriers for our students. Investing in our educators with professional development in universal design, cultural competency, and the latest research on inclusive classrooms benefits all students. In addition, teachers and community members shared that smaller classroom sizes would provide teachers the opportunity to better connect with each student and build relationships. 

Students said that most of all they wanted to be in a classroom where teachers acknowledged where they are at with curriculum and provided the resources they needed to learn. One student said, “I want my teacher to say it’s okay that you don’t understand this lesson and I’m going to help you get there.”

Districts are facing challenges, and which one you’re in makes a difference

Across the state, schools are facing challenges around funding. Though obligated to provide special education services as described in federal and state law, many lack the resources to do so effectively. 

Districts across the state are at different points of resourcing special education services in their schools and we know that some are doing better than others. It’s critical that the special education funding system is designed so that the size of a district or its ability to access local enrichment levies doesn’t impact its ability to provide an education that meets the unique needs of our students.

We’re grateful to everyone who has come out and shared their thoughts and ideas so far. There is so much more to learn and we’re looking forward to upcoming community conversations.

Email to join us. Every voice matters!


Investing in Student Potential is a coalition of organizations who have come together to ensure that students with disabilities in Washington state thrive. This includes steering committee members League of Education Voters, Washington State Charter Schools Association, The Arc of King County, Open Doors for Multicultural Families, and Roots of Inclusion. We’re also joined by many member organizations and individuals. Want to be a part of it? Add your name here and make a difference for special education in Washington state.