The Special Education Funding Quandary Continues

Earlier this week, the US Department of Education published a new rule designed to prevent local and state governments from reducing their budget expenditures for special education (known as maintenance of effort-MOE). While on the surface, this is sound policy, it does not solve a longstanding quandary which both the federal and state governments have left local school districts in, forcing them into a rob Peter to pay Paul situation.

On one hand, federal special education law, known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) makes quite clear that students with significant disabilities have the right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) regardless of how much it costs. Yet, as discussed below, both the state and federal governments fail to provide sufficient funding for special education forcing local school districts to choose between honoring the civil rights of their students with disabilities or skimping on that funding in order to fund the education needs of other students in their districts.

When Congress passed the first special education law, it promised that it would fund 40% of those costs. However, Congress has never fulfilled that promise.  In fact, since this promise was enshrined in statute in 1981, the federal percentage of special education funding has roughly ranged between a paltry 10-18%.  Current funding is approximately 16%. The per-child expenditure has essentially been frozen during President Obama’s tenure, only increasing by $1/child in 6 years. You can review charts of this funding here.

In Wisconsin, we have a double problem when it comes to state funding of special education. First, despite, once promising in state law to fund 63% of special education funding (another promise never fulfilled), state budget support of special education funding continues to fall. Twenty years ago, state government paid for 45% of special education costs. That reimbursement rate has dropped to 27%.

The math is simple:          lots-of-dollar-signs-clip-art

Federal special education funding:  16%

State special education funding:       27%                 

Local special education funding:      57%

The problem is compounded in Wisconsin because state law imposes revenue caps on local school districts which are completely unrelated to their special education costs. School districts may only increase their budgets beyond nominal inflationary amounts by going to referendum, and no school district has ever successfully had the voters approve a referendum to increase their special education funding at the local level. Thus, the twin failure of the federal and state governments to provide sufficient special education funding, combined with revenue caps leaves school districts in a situation where they can only meet their legal obligations to their students with disabilities by taking funding from other parts of the school district budget.

No parent of a child with disabilities wants this dilemma posed by their child’s civil right to a sufficiently funded education, and our state and federal government’s failure to provide sufficient funding to make that right a reality. The US Department of Education’s new Maintenance of Effort regulation is a small step in the right direction, but it fails to address the real problem created by Congress and the states by their failure to provide sufficient special education funding.

I have often told school district administrators that they cannot refuse to fund the educational needs of my clients with disabilities, but I understand their fiscal plight, so I am willing to join them in the battle for additional state and federal funding. I look forward to the day when that dilemma forced upon local school districts by the failure of Congress & state legislatures is a thing of the past.


For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

Categories Special education, special education fundingTags ,

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