Saturday, April 8, 2017

Neither chamber gets it: Why we worry about special education funding, in detail

This post gives more detail on Senate and House approaches in their 2017-19 operating budgets. It accompanies another post, Why we worry about the special education cap

In 2014-15, the state superintendent of public instruction submitted evidence to the state supreme court that at least $266 million in local funding was being spent on special education, in addition to state allocations. This was part of the ongoing McCleary case to make sure the state paid for the actual cost of basic education. In 2012, the court ruled against the state and said it would stay engaged to make sure the state met its "paramount" duty to "amply fund" education for "all children" in Washington. The quotation marks indicate language from our state constitution.

The Senate responded by increasing allocations for special education by $119 million for the 2017-19 biennium. That’s less than half the documented under funding, but still very appreciated.

The problem is that the funding comes in a set, $7,000 per pupil rate. Its buying power will shrink if, say, salaries increase. Over the years, flat rates can act as a cap on funding levels and result in lower spending per pupil.

For similar reasons, The Arc nationally has opposed efforts to use block grants or caps on Medicaid funding. We've also seen the effects in residential care and provider support when the state fails to keep salary allocations updated and competitive.

In the case of special education, the state currently underfunds paraeducators, as well as counselors, nurses, therapists and other key support positions necessary for the social, emotional and academic development of our students. Locking in a flat rate based on current practices and salaries may not be beneficial for the long run.

The Senate option also keeps the 12.7 percent FTE cap. So, districts with higher rates of disability or developmental delay will have to spread funding more thinly. Need is penalized.
The  House responded by asking for a work group to study the cap. Again, appreciated. But in the meantime its proposal offers less than the Senate and still cuts off funding after 12.7 percent is reached locally.

Again, need is penalized.
And then there is this: Under-funding is now built into the law. Special education is part of basic education, and as such special education costs cannot be picked up locally. So the state is saying, in essence, no additional funding for special education, period, even if caseload is higher. And even though, legally, districts must find all children with disabilities and provide special education services to all students who qualify.
Finally - there is the safety net. When you bring up gaps in special education finance, you often hear: Isn’t there a fund schools can apply to?

The answer is yes, but ....

But the safety net fund only has about $42 million in it. Remember that $266 million in 2014-15 that districts covered? The need and safety net don’t align.

And remember those 120 districts over the cap just last year? Last year, less than $2 million (total) of the safety net went to a handful districts for “community impact.”

To summarize concerns with the 12.7 percent FTE cap:

  • It doesn’t reflect actual cost of basic education, a key principle of the McCleary school funding decision.
  • It is not based on national incident rates or known at-risk factors in a community.
  • It is not equitable. Some districts have to spread their funding thinly because their qualifying percentage of students exceeds the cap. (Legally, those districts must still provide services for all who qualify.)
  • It doesn’t factor in cost considerations such as districts serving more children exposed to trauma, which can cause developmental delay.
  • It doesn’t even fund at 12.7 percent of full-time enrollment. Districts receive funds for actual enrollment or 12.7 percent of FTE, whichever is lower. This brings down the statewide average for funding.
  • There is no nationally accepted incident rate for students qualifying for special education, but research published in 2016 by the Centers for Disease Control found a 15.4 percent incidence rate in children ages 2 to 8 for mental, behavior and developmental disabilities.
  • Funding drives services: As districts near the cap, we see anecdotal evidence that they delay or deny services to children who rely on them to access a general education.
And finally … Who are we missing in our counts? (And thus funding?)
  • Full-time equivalent (FTE) is not a headcount and does not reflect actual, physical students in our schools. When you look at all students, there is not big difference between FTE and headcount - it is less than 3 percent. BUT ... when it comes to students qualifying for special education services, there is more than a 15 percent difference. 
  • This discrepancy is concerning given the cut off on funding based on FTE numbers. The children who are under-counted included transient youth (homeless, foster) and medically fragile students.