The Special Education Funding Crisis explained in 5 graphics.

The Special Education Funding Crisis

Special Education Funding

I honestly cannot believe that this blog is almost 10 years old, and it just occurred to me this week to write about Special Education Funding. I was participating in a webinar and it just hit me. So often, parents ask me, “Why? Why does it have to be like this? Why does it have to be so hard to get IEP supports and services?”

It all comes back to funding. And most parents know that. Because when it comes up in the group, that’s what they say. “Money.” But let’s dig a little deeper. Understanding the size and scope of the special education funding crisis can help you be a better IEP advocate for your child. You can read this if you want, or just read and learn the graphics. I strongly encourage you to dig deeper into what is going on in your home state.

Public and Special Education Funding

First, if you dig into public education funding, you’ll see that it has many moving parts and tangents. I could write dozens of posts about it, but that would be overwhelming. Instead, I am going to just explain the basics of education funding, and how they relate to each other.

  • Federal Education Funding
  • State Education Funding
  • Local Education Funding

Understanding how these components work together and affect each other will help you recognize all the issues in your local community. Hopefully, this will motivate some parents to get involved in lobbying and advocacy. And, it always helps to spend time in someone else’s shoes. I am still an intense advocate for IEP kids, but knowing the challenges that the “other side” has, has made me more empathetic and solution-oriented.

I am going to explain the three components of public education funding, how they relate to special education funding. And, I am highlighting 3 random states. Because those examples are consistent with what most districts across the country are facing. Some districts may face additional challenges, such as rural districts lacking a solid tax base to draw from. But you should be the picture.

Full Funding of IDEA

Let’s start with IDEA Federal Funding. When IDEA was passed in 1975, it was an overwhelming piece of legislation. Schools protested that they couldn’t possibly do a 180 and afford to suddenly educate all these kids. Remember, prior to 1975, kids like mine were kept at home or sent to Arc or Easter Seals privately.

Congress acknowledged this and, in a nutshell, said: We realize that this is overwhelming. So, Congress will fund up to 40% of what it costs to educate a child in Special Education. That’s not the exact wording, but you get my point.

Unfortunately, it was a Jedi mind trick or gaslighting. Because the phrase “up to 40%” does not mean “will fund 40%.” And here we sit, 45 years later, and Congress has never even funded more than 20%.

Here is a chart of the most recent data of Special Ed funding and what our Congress has paid for.

In the past 15 years, it has actually decreased by another 3% from 18% to 15%.

If Congress was to pay the full 40%, that is in blue. The green bar is what they actually paid. So, right from the get-go, schools are behind the 8-ball and have to make up 25% of the promised funding. Not a good start, right?

If Congress doesn’t give states the money, then states have to come up with the needed funds.

Rising Costs of Special Education

Before I get into State Funding, I want to briefly discuss the rising costs of Special Education.

In a nutshell, an IEP costs more than it did 10 or 40 years ago. We have better diagnostics and greater awareness, which means that more kids are getting needed IEPs. We also have more research and evidence to provide better supports and services, but that costs more money.

Look at this chart from my state, Pennsylvania. Statewide, in the past decade, special education costs rose by $1.7 billion. Billion, with a B. But, the state only increased their portion of the funding by $95 million. That is a gap of $1.65 billion.

PA has roughly 500 public school districts and 100 public charter schools, give or take. If all districts were the same size, that’s an average of $2.8 million that each individual district has to make up. That is, if the funds were divided equally which they are not.

You can see what that looks like for two individual districts in PA.

Chambersburg is a suburban/rural district in southcentral PA. William Penn is urban, just outside of Philadelphia. But, it’s important to note that William Penn SD has a rate of 80% economically disadvantaged children. In other words, the district simply cannot just “raise local taxes” to close the gap. Their families absolutely cannot afford it. It has approximately the same number of students as my district, 5000.

I won’t get too deep into the weeds here with specifics. Hopefully, this gives you an idea and you may want to dig into your own school district’s numbers. This scenario is common across the nation.

Stagnant State Education Funding

I have two more graphs below. One is from Minnesota and the other from Washington State.

This is for Minnesota.

In Minnesota, legislators are actually raising the amount of funding. However, it doesn’t even come close to meeting the needs or addressing the rising costs of Special Ed.

Washington State

Look at the light green/tan line. That’s the state special ed funding in Washington state. At the end of that, you see a darker line. That is the federal special education funding that the state has received. The orange line is what it actually costs to educate our kids. It’s not even close to being 40% of the actual cost, as was promised almost 5 decades ago. Not.even.close.

Again, these few graphics can be repeated across most districts, all across the nation.

Local School District Funding Challenges

The Federal government doesn’t chip in what they promised. The states aren’t coming even close to what the local districts need. So what’s next?

That’s right, you, the parent and local taxpayer. Schools still have to educate our kids, per state and federal laws. But the feds and the state aren’t giving them the money to do so.

When first developed (at least in PA, but we have a State Constitution), local school districts were designed to be the funder of last resort. What that means is, yeah, they would pick up the excess. However, over the past several decades, local districts are forced to pick up most of the cost. And, local school boards have additional challenges, which vary by location. Here is a list of some of those challenges.

  • A local tax base of low-income families often found in inner cities or extremely rural areas.
  • Mandated commitments that must be paid, such as pensions.
  • Decaying and crumbling buildings.
  • Lack of a commercial tax base to draw funding from.
  • Corporations that do come to town are often given extreme tax breaks or decades-long deferments, thus actually costing the district more money (infrastructure, more students move into town) rather than getting more tax revenue.
  • Laws and mandates that prohibit local school boards from raising taxes by more than a certain percentage.

In a nutshell, this is why the wealthy suburban districts get better and the struggling districts get worse. A higher-income district has residents who can easily handle a 2-4% tax increase annually and are willing to do so.

To say that there is a Special Education Funding Crisis is an understatement.

Why? How did it get this way?

It’s really pretty terrible, isn’t it? That a legislator, who is paid to represent us, has let it get this bad. Since it’s been going on for almost 50 years, it’s a systemic issue that will require a lot of time and commitment to change.

Basically what has happened is that Americans have been asleep at the wheel and corporations took over. There has been a decades-long movement underway to privatize public education. That is, funnel public money (for schools) into private hands. Very similar to what happened with our prison privatization movement–it was a way for a small group of people to get rich providing a public service. Much to the dismay of poor people, minorities and the mentally ill, who saw their incarceration rates skyrocket. But, they made money off prisoners.

Now they have our kids in their crosshairs. And at the helm, yep, Betsy DeVos. She’s not even secretive or subtle about it. She will openly state that she wants public education money to go to private interests, including businesses and churches.

The Koch brothers have also played a large role in this. The folks who want to fund their private interests with public education money have paid off legislators and have forced them to financially starve our public schools into failure. If public schools suck, it makes a stronger case for privatization. Exhibit A-the families who choose for-profit charters and vouchers, even though charters do not have successful track records. And most vouchers require you to sign away FAPE. (Pro tip: Billionaires really don’t give a shit if your child receives FAPE or not, they just want the money.)

Here’s a quick rundown of how it happened. Mind you, this has many more moving parts and players. I’m simplifying.

Why this is dangerous for IEP kids.

First, it’s dangerous for our kids because the schools truly do not have enough money to meet our kids’ needs. This creates hostile environments, the tension between parents and schools and so on. You all already know about that. I could also rant all day about, why, if you’re not receiving enough money, why you take it out on the parent rather than work with the parent to go after our legislators. But I won’t.

But the other scary part of this is that our kids will be left behind. Private schools do not have to provide IEPs. Charter schools are supposed to follow IDEA, but they don’t. And they get away with it because of the no-accountability laws that they legislators give them (because they paid for said legislator). As an example, in my state, many charters are exempt from the Right to Know or FOIA laws. This means that we, the taxpayers, are not even entitled to know how they spend our money. How crazy is that!?!

Special Education Funding-Action Steps

I never like to just deliver a whole pile of bad news and walk away. That only makes parents feel helpless and despondent.

As you can see, this is a crisis. And it’s going to get worse every year until we fix it. It’s going to take a tsunami of parents and voters to demand better. In no particular order, here are some ideas.

  1. Know who and what you are voting for. Read their position statements on public education. And VOTE for our kids!
  2. Make a commitment to citizen lobbying and advocacy. Challenge yourself to send one email or make one phone call per week about this issue.
  3. Read and research what is going on in your state. Engage other parents.
  4. Invite a school board member out for coffee. Learn what, specifically, is happening in your district.
  5. Learn which of your Senators and Congressmen/women support full funding of IDEA. Engage those who do not. Ask them to support it. Visit them or call.
  6. The most important thing we can do is to band together. Collectively we make up 15-20% of a school’s population. There is strength in numbers.

Good luck, I hope this was enough of an overview to make you want to learn more. This isn’t something we can “Donors Choose” our way out of.

And yes, I realize that there are 6 graphics, not 5. That last one, the flow chart, was added after everything else because I felt it was needed. Also, if you are in favor of charters or vouchers, please don’t email me. I know the arguments on the other side. Until all charters are performing satisfactorily, have full transparency, and accept ALL kids with IEPs, I won’t be a fan. Full stop.

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special ed funding

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