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Originally published Wednesday, September 25, 2013 at 4:25 PM

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Editorial: Seattle struggles with special-ed deadline

Of Washington’s 295 school districts, only the Seattle Public Schools runs a special education department in such disarray that state education leaders are calling for corrective action.

Seattle Times Editorial

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THE Seattle Public Schools has missed its own Sept. 20 deadline to provide the state with long-term plans for revamping special-education programs. The missed deadline is disappointing but emblematic of a district struggling to improve its special-education program.

As Times education reporter John Higgins noted in a recent story, the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) has been pressuring the district for years to fix problems, including failures to update special-education students’ learning plans, to deliver services agreed upon in those plans and provide the services consistently from school to school.

When an elementary school develops an Individual Education Plan for a fifth-grader moving to middle school, the expectation is that the needed services will be at the new school. Too often in Seattle that is not the case.

The state rejected the district’s latest improvement plan. With millions of dollars in federal special-education money at stake, Seattle education officials promised a response by Sept. 20.

District spokeswoman Patti Spencer attributed the missed deadline to caution. The response, including detailed answers to 25 questions from OSPI, is winding its way through every department, including legal, for approval. Now the district is saying the report will arrive at OSPI next week.

Superintendents and special-education leaders in Seattle have come and gone. Inconsistent leadership hinders the district’s ability to say what it will do and do what it says.

OSPI’s scrutiny is appropriate. The agency is responsible for ensuring districts spend the $220 million in annual federal special-education funding in compliance with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Seattle leaders touted the June arrival of Seattle’s new highly regarded executive director of special education, Zakiyyah McWilliams, as ushering in a new era of consistent, effective leadership.

In a June letter to The Seattle Times, school-board member Marty McLaren wrote:

“We can be optimistic that each special-education student will thrive as [the district] proceeds to roll out its carefully conceived plan for renewal ... and that within three to five years, excellence will be the hallmark of our special-education services.”

Those goals have not been met yet. But hopefully soon.

One out of every 7 students in Seattle — roughly 7,000 in all — receives special-education services. While Seattle is the largest district in the state and has its own challenges, the state gives other large districts much higher marks for their special services.

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