Special education needs to be funded without cross-subsidies 

Unfunded mandates are a longstanding sore point for educators. Higher units of government routinely adopt laws that call for services to be available, without providing the needed dollars to support the services and ensure compliance. K-12 education tends to see the most mandated services, although county government is a close second.  

One of the historically underfunded areas in our schools, thanks to unfunded mandates, is special education. 

We agree with the desire to provide everyone with a quality education and to adopt measures to make sure that happens. But it’s a hard lesson to learn when the financial supports aren’t attached. 

At a time when more and more students need special education services, we don’t want to see these students’ needs blamed when spending cuts must be made in other areas. That type of budget balancing act causes valid arguments between the haves and have-nots, and bad feelings that feed longstanding inequities. Some of us attended those schools where we used old textbooks and didn’t have other resources because school dollars were spread so thin between so many needs. 

It’s difficult if not impossible to know how much money is spent in meeting all of the unfunded education mandates at the local level. One area we do have a handle on is special education in Minnesota, and how needed cross-subsidies take dollars away from school districts’ general funds. This is an issue that could be addressed in Minnesota now with the state in good financial condition. 

A group of education associations joined with disability advocacy organizations in May to raise the issue of special education cross-subsidies and how those could be addressed through the state’s $9.25 billion budget surplus. 

A cross-subsidy is the amount of money from a school district’s general fund that is used to pay the unreimbursed cost of providing services. That is, money for a specific purpose isn’t enough so more flexible general fund dollars must be used. 

In Minnesota, special education and English language learners’ programs are two of the largest education areas that have unfunded mandates. Those programs are critically important but are historically underfunded. 

We agree that both needs are critical. As a disability news source, Access Press must focus on special education. Minnesota public schools must serve all special education students, including homeschooled pupils. The schools cannot turn anyone away. 

While school districts receive state aid and some federal dollars to pay for special education services, it’s not enough. Our state’s special education funding formula is very complex and causes frustration for those who must work with it. Districts must shift around other state or local dollars to cover the growing special education needs. 

Minnesota Department of Education officials estimate that the state’s special education cross-subsidy will hit $822 million this school year. While that might not sound like a lot of money in the context of a multi-billion dollar state surplus, it’s a big sum when weighed district by district for Minnesota educators. 

The cross-subsidy shortfalls ring especially true for our rural districts, which can be hardest hit with inflationary costs. The shortfalls are also true for districts where many low-income families are unable to provide services and supports to enhance their special education students’ learning experiences. 

Special education is so important. It allows disabled students to participate in public school with others and have that inclusive educational experience. Having all students together is important. So are adequate funding and providing the supports students with disabilities need. 

Special education, especially high-quality programs, allows students and families affected by disability to prepare for the future. But to meet state and federal laws, the financial support has to be there. 

Closing the financial gap created by cross-subsidies is seen as a way to provide more money per pupil than other proposed education investments. It means fewer difficult choices for school administration and school boards. 

If not in 2022, addressing the special education cross-subsidy and looking long-term at special education funding must be a priority for state lawmakers in 2023. Longer-term we’d like to see greater public awareness and understanding of these unfunded mandates and how they must be addressed structurally instead of continuing to watch the cross-subsidies grow. It’s so important.