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Understanding requests for special education funding

Posted Date: 04/20/2022

Understanding requests for special education funding

Many school leaders are encouraging Governor Laura Kelly and the Kansas Legislature to support an increase in state aid for special education services before the session ends. Although the Legislature has been increasing special education funding, the amount has not kept up with the costs of these services and funding is $150 million below the commitment in state law.

Why do schools have special education programs?

In the mid-1970s, advocates, educators and political leaders recognized that millions of students had disabilities that affected their ability to learn in a traditional setting. In some cases, these students were not in school at all. In other cases, these students fell behind their peers until they dropped out or were expelled from school.

Laws based at both federal and state level since then include these important components of special education. Services must be tailored to the student through an individual education plan (IEP) and provided at no cost. Services must be provided based on the student’s needs, not the funding capacity of the school or district; and districts have an obligation to identify such students. There is a very strong component of parent rights. To the greatest extent possible, services should be provided in the regular classroom school, among students without disabilities. Public schools are also required to provide special education services to students in non-public schools.

Why is there a separate funding program for special education?

First, the federal law and state requirements were creating additional costs for schools that they had very little control over, unlike education provided to typically developing students. Second, these costs were not uniform across school districts. In Kansas, there are districts with fewer than 10 percent of students on IEPs, and districts with over 25 percent. Third, costs for individual children vary dramatically, with a single child sometimes requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars in services.

The federal government originally committed to pay 40 percent of special education costs and the state of Kansas created an aid program to help pay a portion of the “excess cost” of special ed.

Despite the promise of a funding partnership to cover these costs, the federal government has never come close to funding its 40 percent share; the actual amount is usually estimated below 20 percent. In Kansas, at least since the 1990s, there has been a goal of having the state pay for at least 90 percent of excess cost. In 2006, the Legislature committed to covering 92 percent but hasn’t done so since 2011.

The excess cost calculation is based on total statewide costs. State aid is distributed to districts based primarily on the number of teachers and special education paraprofessionals they employ, as well as transportation costs and high-cost services, so the percentage paid to individual districts differs from the statewide average. In addition, many services are provided through special education cooperatives formed by school districts to pool resources.

Why are special education costs rising and what happens when they are not covered by the state?

More students are being identified as needing special services, which require more specialized staff and related costs. Since 2000, the number of Kansas students receiving special education services increased by about 50 percent, from about 50,000 to over 75,000, much faster than overall enrollment. The number of special education teachers has increased by nearly 1,200, over 35 percent, the number of special education paras by over 3,500, more than 100 percent, and other positions like audiologists, speech pathologists, and physical and mental health staff have increased far more than regular enrollment.

This does not include contracted services for certain students or the additional costs of facilities and special equipment.

Yet special education state aid is now funded at the lowest share of those costs in at least a decade. This fact has relatively little impact on special education services, which must be provided. Instead, it means shifting funds from regular education programs, teachers and support staff. As a result, increasing special education actually benefits all students as funds are able to be distributed to all areas of education. 

How does special education funding compare to the Gannon school finance plan?

In 2005, the Kansas Legislature commissioned a study of education costs and adopted a three-year plan to fund those costs by 2009. The Kansas Supreme Court accepted that plan as meeting the Legislature’s obligation to provide constitutionally suitable funding. However, beginning in 2010, the Legislature cut funding below those levels, and per-pupil funding dropped behind inflation for eight years. In the Gannon school finance case, the Legislature agreed to a six-year plan to raise base state aid back to 2009 levels after adjusting for inflation. Those increases will be completed next year, the 2022-23 school year. After that, base increases are set to increase based on inflation.

However, those base state aid increases were designed to cover the cost of regular education. Special education creates costs “in excess” of regular programs. Special education state aid has been increased by $7.5 million per year since 2018, but that has not been enough to keep up with the additional costs of special education; in fact, state aid is now about $150 million below the 92 percent requirement in state law.

The state currently has a billion-dollar plus budget surplus. In addition, because of lower school enrollment, in part due to the COVID pandemic, base state aid increases are less than expected. And the state’s contributions to the KPERS school retirement fund will be lower because the Legislature is paying down unfunded liabilities. The combination of these factors provides an opportunity for the governor and Legislature to make up for past underfunding of special education.

School leaders can contact their legislators about the impact of special education underfunding on school district budgets and services and how additional funding would be used. KASB supports funding special education aid at 92 percent of the excess cost as committed to in state law.

For additional information, please watch the KASB State of Special Education in Kansas presentation from April 16, 2022: