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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Growing Number Of Wisconsin School Districts Call For More Special Education Funding

Emily Files
Lynn Blue is a special education paraprofessional at Washington High School in Milwaukee. Districts across Wisconsin are asking lawmakers to increase special education funding.

What does the 300-student Plum City School District have in common with the 20,000-student Kenosha district? Both think an increase in special education funding is overdue.

They’re two of about 30 districts across the state that have written formal resolutions over the past few months asking lawmakers for more special education support. Read some of the resolutions here, under "Special Education Funding."

“It’s really had a hard impact on many of our districts, to make sure that our students with disabilities are funded the way they need to be funded,” said Kim Kaukl, executive director the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, which has helped coordinate the resolution-writing effort.

Schools are mandated by federal law to provide services for students with disabilities. The services could include things like speech therapy or classroom aides.

Costs for these services keep rising, but state funding to offset special education expenses has stayed flat for a decade. In recent years, only about a quarter of schools’ special education costs were reimbursed by the state.

Chris Hambuch-Boyle is on the Eau Claire School Board, which was one of the first to write a resolution on this issue.

“Certainly, if you’re underfunded and you’re mandated to do something, you have to find the money somewhere to do it,” Hambuch-Boyle said.

School districts sometimes find the money to cover special education expenses by cutting from other areas, like regular education. In recent years, a relatively new voucher program with relatively few restrictions added salt to the wound.

The Special Needs Scholarship Program provides tax dollars for students with disabilities to attend private schools. In addition to the $12,000 voucher payment, the private schools have the option to bill the state for up to 90 percent of extra costs.

This school year, the number of students using special needs scholarships skyrocketed from about 250 to about 700.

“It was very eye-opening that [lawmakers] were willing to go to 90 percent for special needs students in the voucher program, but not for students in the public schools,” said Kaukl.

Hambuch-Boyle said, “It didn't sit well with a lot of people.”

Hence, the flood the school boards passing resolutions asking for more special education funding.

The resolutions call out the perceived inequity between the state’s about 25 percent reimbursement for public schools versus the 90 percent reimbursement available to voucher schools.

The school districts have a receptive audience in Gov.-elect Tony Evers. As head of the Department of Public Instruction, Evers proposed a major increase in special education dollars. He wants to raise the state reimbursement level to 60 percent.

But Evers, a Democrat, will contend with a Republican-dominated legislature. It’s uncertain whether the growing number of school districts calling for change will break through the expected gridlock.

Hambuch-Boyle is optimistic. She says education was front and center in this election in a way she hasn’t seen in years. 

“I didn’t hear much difference between what they were advocating in both parties,” she said. “So, I’m very hopeful. Because I think now is the time to fix this.”

A forthcoming report from a legislator-led Blue-Ribbon Commission could also fuel change. The commission traveled around the state earlier this year gathering input on the way Wisconsin funds public education. Money for special education was a recurring theme from people who testified.  

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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