On May 21st, just before the midnight deadline, the big education bill squeaked through the legislature. The contents of the bill, the E-12 (Early Childhood through Grade 12) Education Omnibus bill, remained somewhat of a mystery up until the last moment; three weeks of closed door sessions left much of the public, lobbyists and even some legislators wondering. Nevertheless, the bill was signed by the governor. And there was some good news for special education funding.Two key changes will mean school districts have more money for special education. The first change will reinstate the special education “growth factor,” which makes annual funding adjustments to account for inflation. In addition, districts will also have to pay less of their regular education money toward special education. The “cross-subsidy” was reduced by a little over half. Other more minor initiatives explore reducing special education costs and reform.
The governor’s dismal proposal for special education funding opened the session, recommending a mere $37 million increase for the biennium. However, the final bill provides for a $329 million increase, which will primarily be used to pay off the cross-subsidy deficit that has now reached $530 million in Minnesota.
The $329 million increase will provide much needed relief to our schools. Cross-subsidy has been an issue since 2004, when the state legislature voted to eliminate the special education growth factor and then “capped” funding. With less money coming from the state, special education costs have continued to grow over time. Some more good news was the reinstatement of the special education growth factor (at 4.6% per year), which will help districts with some of the rising costs. Schools that have “extraordinary” special education costs will also have an inflationary factor of 2% per year reinstated.
In order to better understand what’s driving special education cost issues, the legislature asked for several reports over the next years:
• The Minnesota Department of Education is required to report annually the amount each school is spending to cross-subsidize special education.
• The Commissioner of Education will also be required to track special education litigation costs for school districts every year.
• A new “Special Education Task Force.” will compare the Federal IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) requirements with Minnesota requirements. Minnesota has historically exceeded the federal law for special education services. The group will be required to provide a report to the legislature by February 2008.
Although the overall flavor of the final education bill was not one of reform, there was some movement in that direction. A new “School Finance Reform Taskforce” will examine the way we currently finance education in Minnesota. Special education funding formulas and financing will be part of this discussion.
Another reform effort will help districts get money from the federal IDEA law. K-12 public schools will be encouraged to tap into IDEA funds that are available to help students who need additional academic or behavioral support to succeed in the general education classroom. These services seek to provide early, intensive instruction (with particular emphasis in grades K-3) to reduce the number of children needing special education services.
A Good Start, But …
The reduction of the cross-subsidy deficit and reinstating the special education growth factors this session is a good start, but school deficits will continue to grow over time. For example, all estimates indicate that special education transportation costs will keep going up. Yet these costs have not been addressed in this bill. Therefore, it is important that we continue to insist that legislators adequately fund special education and establish stable, consistent funding.
It’s important for citizen advocates to continue meeting with your legislators during the summer and fall to let them know how important special education is to our children. The message should always be the same-continue to adequately fund special education and provide stability to education funding. Don’t bow to the lesser federal standards when considering the future of our children.
Kim Kang is Communication Director of the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota