Special education funding system needs to be repaired

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 the 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.

In 1967 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 the federal and state governments refused to provide.

Look at what’s happened in Minnesota alone.

According to the Minnesota Department of Education, 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 bolster special education funding by almost $600 million from their general operating funds.

Had the federal and state governments paid what was promised — another $450 million — local school districts would have had to pay only $150 million more last year.

Obviously this system is broken. There has been no action by either the federal or state governments to close the funding gap that compels the diversion of local school district funds from programs for all to the cost of mandated IEPs.

The federal government is content with the underfunded status quo. Gov. Mark Dayton had budgeted an extra $125 million for special education. State legislators would rather spread any new funding to their local districts, rather than give more to districts that educate many of the disabled learners.

A leading advocate for children with learning disabilities contends that a local school district’s subsidy of the funding gap is part of the community’s responsibility to educate all children.  She notes that students with special needs also lose opportunities when districts cut operating budgets.

In a survey taken by ECM education columnist Joe Nathan, 40 Minnesota school superintendents 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 IEPs be funded.

Until the people rise up and demand that the federal and state governments live up to their promises, under-funding will continue and students who have no IEPs will continue to feel the loss of educational opportunities they deserve.

This editorial is a product of the ECM Editorial Board. The Forest Lake Times is part of ECM Publishers Inc.