Minnesota schools will pay a total of $520 million this year filling unfunded federal and state special education mandates — money St. Paul and Washington D.C. have promised but will not provide.
As the election cycle nears its November closure and politicians return to lawmaking, they must be reminded that in addition to underfunding our schools an inflation-adjusted 14 percent since 2003, they have been underfunding special education by hundreds of millions every year — $520 million in 2009 alone.
Schools, often the special education provider of last resort, are required via federal and state law to provide special services to any student who requires them. Unfortunately, the state and federal governments have reneged on their promise to help pay for the services.
As a requirement, school districts have to make up the difference out of their general budget and this difference can be crippling. Large districts like Anoka-Hennepin must transfer as much as $28 million out of the general budget each year to make up for the special education funding shortfall. Smaller districts such as Ulen-Hitterdal in northwestern Minnesota lose as much as $96,000 each year — the cost of two to three teachers.
“To make up the difference we have to take money out of our very precious general fund,” said Ulen-Hitterdal superintendent Allen Zenor. His kindergarten class has 23 students, and without the burden of the special education funding gap “we could hire another kindergarten teacher and lower the class size or we could hire an elementary-level reading specialist to help our elementary students do better on the (No Child Left Behind-mandated) test or we could hire a math specialist for our high school students.”
The funding gap is not new. Since Congress enacted the Individuals with Disabilities Act in 1990, the federal government has promised to pay 40 percent of all costs. Lawmakers have yet to live up to that promise. Until last year, it paid an average of only 18 percent. Under President Obama’s stimulus package, an additional $12.2 billion will go to special education funding nationally, bringing the average up to 27 percent of costs for the last and current fiscal years.
The gap isn’t caused by Washington D.C. alone. The funding formula for special education puts the word “Byzantine” to shame. The state has promised to pay a percentage for special education salaries, a different percentage for benefits and a different percentage for supplies. It has yet to live up to these bargains. In 2007, the state added a one-time increase to special education funding, but the effect was short-lived.
The situation frustrates special education experts because not only is the number of students identified as needing Source: Minnesosta Dept of Education ( click to enlarge ) special education services rising, but research shows that the earlier in a child’s life experts can identify and treat special education needs, the more effective the results will be as the child grows.
“It’s an awful cycle,” said Elisabeth Lodge Rogers, the executive director of the Department of Student Services/Special Education in St. Cloud Public Schools. “Because we have such a small staff, we can’t intervene early which results in more students qualifying for special education, which leads to requiring more special education funds for more staff, so we can’t use any more funds on early intervention.”
St. Cloud, which sent $8.6 million from its general fund to cover special education underfunding in 2009, faces a double-whammy: its enrollment is going down at the same time special education enrollment is rising. It’s because the district is a regional center, Rogers said.
“When people relocate to central Minnesota and they have a child with special needs, they relocate here because we have school services and the hospital and health clinics. It’s the same with other regional centers in Minnesota.”
In addition, St. Cloud has seen the number of students qualifying for free or reduced price lunch rising from 28 percent 10 years ago to 49 percent today, Rogers said. The district also has a highly mobile population. Both of these factors are predictors of special education needs.
Statewide, about 15 percent of students receive some special education services, according to the Minnesota House of Representatives.
In extreme times, school districts cannot put students needing special education help on a waiting list. They need to help every student as they come to the school. “In a way, we’re the special ed paraprofessional of last resort,” Rogers said. “That’s good because every child deserves an education, but it’s bad when the federal and state governments fail to pay for the service and we have to provide it at the local level.”
To see each district’s special education loss and to learn more about how special education is funded, go to the Minnesota Department of Education’s report on special education cross subsidies. Click here