Friday, April 7, 2017

Why we worry about the special education cap

Funding for special education is not equitable in Washington.

The state wants to control costs, so it cuts off funding to school districts once their special education caseload hits 12.7 percent of full-time student enrollment.

Nevermind the state's McCleary mandate to cover actual costs of basic education, or the federal civil rights mandate to cover all who qualify. In Washington, we have caps.

If districts happen to have 12.7 percent or less of their student body qualifying, then they get a set amount for each student. This makes up their pool to cover all their special education services.

If districts happen to have more students qualifying, then they are still funded as if they have 12.7 percent. They just have to spread that pool to cover more students.

This worries us.

Legally (and morally) schools need to be in the business of finding children with disabilities or developmental delay and getting them services as soon as possible. Their healthy development depends on it, and the sooner services can be provided, the better the outcome.

When funding is cut off based on enrollment numbers, services can get delayed, or even denied.

Students with disabilities, neurological differences, or developmental delay need services like speech or occupational therapy, or specialized reading instruction, so they can access the general education curriculum. Without that access, they don't acquire the knowledge and skills they need to thrive as adults.

This translates to low employment participation (currently, just 20 percent for people with disabilities, according to the Office of Disability Employment Policy). It can mean a lifetime of isolation, or poverty.

We think this is a pretty big deal, and data supports our concern. Last year, we joined other advocates for children with disabilities and their families to file a "friend of the court" brief in the McCleary school-funding case.

We pointed out that 120 school districts and one charter school were over the 12.7 percent FTE cap – and that the situation wasn't anything new. Demographics and district sizes vary dramatically in our state, and those factors will affect the local percentage of students in special education. It is not unusual for more than 40 percent of the districts to exceed the cap.

The statewide average for special education is about 12 percent FTE students, so some say no foul. But averages are made up of higher and lower numbers. The state opts to fund the lower numbers, and penalize the higher ones.

Here is how it played out in the 2014-15 school year in Seattle Public Schools:
  • 12.85 percent FTE enrolled in special education
  • Total spent on special education services: $85 million
  • Money coming from the state: $46 million
  • Money pulled from "other funds" to back fill and provide services: $39 million
In four out of the last six years, Seattle Public Schools came in a little over the cap.Its FTE percentages for special education ranged from 12.37 percent to 13.12 percent, for an average of 12.77 percent FTE during the 2010 to 2016 timeframe.

In contrast, Mercer Island came in below the cap each of the last six years. Its average special education FTE for that time span was 9.76 percent.

Together, districts like Seattle and Mercer Island made up a statewide average that fell within the cap. But individually, their caseloads - and costs - were much different. One had less money to spread around, per pupil.

A second layer of inequity …

And then there are kids who go under counted.

"FTE" stands for full-time equivalent. It is not a headcount. Students who are not present at the beginning of a term do not get counted. Students who attend part day only get partially counted.

This means kids who are homeless or in foster care (or otherwise transient) can be under counted. Students fitting these profiles often require special education services at higher rates. (Trauma can interfere with brain development; the "adverse childhood experience" effect.) And kids who are considered medically fragile and attend for shorter days will be only be counted as partial students, even though they may need full-time daily staff.

To put this in context:
  • Last year, the difference between FTE and headcount for all students was less than 3 percent.
  • For special education students, the difference was more than 15 percent.
Or in student numbers:
  • Last year, the FTE count for special education was 124,231. The headcount was 146,807.
  • That means almost 23,000 students were not factored into special education funding allocations.
(By the way, you can look up these details here and here.)

A third layer of inequity …

Finally - there is the safety net. When you bring up gaps in special education finance, you often hear: Isn’t there a fund that schools can apply to?

The answer is yes, but ....

In this case … yes, but the safety net only has about $42 million in it. That’s a long way from the $266 million in local funding for special education reported to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).

And remember those 120 districts that exceeded the 12.7 percent cap? Last year, only a handful got relief for “community impact.” In all, they shared less than $2 million.

But all of this was last year’s worry.

This year, we have a whole new level of worry.

A $2,425 per student gap

In the past, when faced with more need than state funding, districts supplemented. If state funding didn't cover the special education caseload, districts pulled in local funds. A lucky few got safety net funds, mostly to cover “high need individuals.”

In the 2014-15 school year, the extra money varied by district, but overall it added up to about $300 million. That year, districts spent $266 million in local funds to cover all of special education; another $34 million was allocated through the safety net.

If you break that down by student count, it comes to $2,425 more per special education FTE.

That's a lot of money. And going forward, it won’t be allowed.

No local money for basic education

First thing to understand: Special education is part of basic education. The state legislature gets to define basic education, and it included special education in the definition. (We don’t disagree!)

Second thing: Because it is part of the program of basic education, the state must pay for it. This is how our courts have interpreted our state constitution.

Now, the new thing: Under legislation just signed into law, the state will put local revenue into a sub fund of the general fund and verify that the money will be used for non-basic education purposes. This was part of the so-called levy-cliff bill.

The problem is both House and Senate intend to leave the 12.7 percent cap in place.

So, the state will continue to cut off funding; only now, districts won’t be able to use local funds to cover the actual caseload. Instead, they must do a thin spread of their pooled state funds.

In essence, legislators are building under-funding into the law.

Legally, districts must provide special education services to all who qualify. Yet the state refuses to pay for actual costs or caseload, and now refuses to let districts supplement for those funding shortfalls.

Some of our most complex and vulnerable students could be left without access to a general education curriculum, either because of lack of funding, or failure to honor child find.

So we worry. A lot.

- Ramona Hattendorf, Director of Advocacy, The Arc of King County