There has been a rush to judgment lately, by those without disabled children and those without children at all, that the increase in costs for special education is the fault of the parents of disabled children demanding too many services for their children. Aside from the natural anger towards the attitude that disabled children don’t deserve an equal opportunity at education, I believe that there is a lot of misinformation and confusion on how special education is actually funded and what causes the costs to exceed school budgets. Hopefully this brief blog post will clear up the misunderstanding and expose the realities about special education funding.
Where do schools get the funds for special education?
While there is some variation from state to state, most states get some of their funding through state and/or property taxes. However, that is not the source of the majority of funding. Believe it or not, a majority of the funding comes from the federal government (good ol’ Uncle Sam) through the U.S. Department of Education. From the mandate of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and other federal legislation, the federal government must provide funding to states that set up programs for special education of disabled students.
So, even though some of your local taxes do go to help local disabled children, it is a very small part because those taxes are actually part of the general education fund. Only a portion of that is broken away for special education (if any at all).
And, yes, I agree, it is still “your tax money” that goes to the IRS that ultimately funds special education and the USDOE, but that is where we get to whether the money is wisely distributed, spent or not.
How are state funds distributed for special education?
The federal laws that fund special education on the state level require that states set up special education programming in the schools. If the states comply, they get funds. If they don’t, they don’t get funds. Thus, there is a HUGE motivation for states to set up such educational programs and (to my knowledge) all of them have complied (even D.C., the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, etc.)
It gets tricky on how the states distribute that money once received from the feds. Some states distribute it evenly across their school districts, regardless of whether there are even special needs students in those districts. Some states distribute the money based on population models. Some states distribute it based on economic models, where the lower income districts get more money. None of these methods accurately track the proportion of disabled students in each district.
Pennsylvania recently passed legislation which will distribute these funds proportionately based on the number of special education students in each district. In other words, the funds will be “tied” to the special needs kids in each district. This is a much more accurate and targeted use of those funds and should be modeled by other states.
How do schools spend the special education funds?
Once the states distribute the funds to the school districts, it gets even trickier on how those funds are spent. Theoretically, those funds should only be spent on special education services and equipment. They are targeted to support the special education kids in those schools. Unfortunately, this is not always how it works in reality.
Some schools and school districts have been caught taking special education funds and putting them into the general education fund. Big deal, you ask? Well, think of it this way. The schools that do this spend the money on extracurricular activities (for example, new football uniforms or equipment) when they should be paying for teaching aides, occupational therapy, physical disability modifications, etc. Essentially, special ed kids are missing out on their education so the cheerleaders can have new pom poms.
Now, I don’t mean to sound crass and I do appreciate extracurricular activities, but take a closer look at that word – extracurricular. Emphasize the “extra” part. That means it is something beyond the basic curriculum. Perhaps those activities should be privately funded, but certainly should not come out of the special education funds that have been hijacked into the general education fund.
Still, there is a far worse culprit for how special education funds are wasted.
Why is special education always causing the schools to go over budget?
AHA! The answer to this is definitely NOT parents of disabled children seeking services for their kids. In fact, if schools appropriately provided services to disabled children without unreasonable hesitation, the federal funds for special education might never be used up in a given academic year. WHOA, TJ, this is not what we’ve been told. I repeat, AHA!
Unfortunately, school districts have developed a mentality that is counter-intuitive to educating disabled children. They view the request for special services to be an annoyance and meddling in their budgets. They do everything they can do create a negative PR campaign about how special education is destroying their budgets and they can’t afford all these special services.
BALONEY! (or Bologna, as its properly spelled)
School district administrators, who rarely understand the federal mandate to provide an equal education opportunity to disabled children (i.e. THE LAW), make every effort to block special education services. They hire attorneys who bill at astronomical hourly rates to fight these special education services. These attorneys are not only making a mint off of representing school districts, they are providing training on how to fight special education battles.
Take a guess the source of funds to pay the school district attorneys? Yep, that’s right, the federal special education funds. And if that runs out, they take from the general education funds. Thus, logically . . . wait for it . . . YOUR TAX DOLLARS pay for the school districts and their attorneys to fight against providing special education to disabled children. YOUR TAX DOLLARS are making school district attorneys very wealthy. VERY wealthy indeed.
Is that really how you want your tax dollars spent? Wouldn’t it be smarter to spend the money on actual special education and not have any more tax hikes or complaints that special education is causing school budgets to explode?
I think so. What do you think?