By inadequately funding special ed, state, feds hurt all students

The number of students who have special needs in Minnesota is growing and the funding system to educate them needs to be repaired.

Each student with special needs has an individual education plan (IEP) that by law must be funded. All children, including those with special needs, have an equal right to an education as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. They also have a right to the same funding as all children.

The problem comes when the cost of mandated individualized programs for special needs children is greater than state and federal funds provided. Local school districts then by law must pick up the extra cost from their general funds, causing school boards to cut funds and opportunities for all students. What’s more, while overall enrollment in the state is declining the number of children identified with special needs is growing, particularly those with autism.

In 1967, the Congress passed a law requiring school districts to have an individual plan for each learning disabled child and promised to provide 40 percent of the funding. The state of Minnesota also is expected to provide funds to educate these children. At no time was it suggested that local school districts would have to fund what federal and state governments refused to provide.

Look at what’s happened in Minnesota.

In 2012, it cost $1.8 billion to fund these individual plans. The state and federal government covered $1.2 billion forcing local school districts to subsidize special education by almost $600 million. The federal government is supposed to fund 40 percent of special education costs, but underfunded it by $353 million. The state underfunded school districts by $97 million.

Obviously this system is broken. There has been no action by the federal government nor state government to close the funding gap, which compels the diversion of local school district funds from programs for all to the cost of the mandated IEPs.

The federal government is content with the underfunded status quo. Gov. Mark Dayton has budgeted an extra $125 million for special education, but legislative agreement is doubtful. State legislators would rather spread any new funding to their local districts, rather than give more to metropolitan districts which have many of the disabled learners.

Those organizations that  advocate for children with learning disabilities believe that the school districts current sharing of the cost of mandated IEPs is part of the community’s responsibility to provide public education.  They contend that students with special needs also lose opportunities when districts cut operating budgets.

In a survey taken by ECM education columnist Joe Nathan, 40 school superintendents from all over the state said their number one priority for the federal government is full funding of special education.

We favor a concerted effort to have the federal and state governments live up to their commitments, because, after all, they are the ones who mandate that these individual education plans be funded. Until the people rise up and demand the federal and state government live up to their promises, under-funding will continue and regular students who have no IEPs will continue to feel the loss of educational opportunities they deserve.

This opinion is from the ECM Editorial Board. The Record is part of ECM Publishers, Inc.