Report Examines Consequences Of Underfunding Special Education

Feb 13, 2019

Gov. Tony Evers wants to increase state special education funding by $600 million. The dramatic proposal follows a decade of flat state funding, despite rising costs to serve students with disabilities.

Right now, the main state support for special education only covers about a quarter of school districts’ costs. It’s up to local districts to make up the difference.

A new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum examines the consequences of the situation.

One takeaway: there is less money for regular education.

Because schools are constitutionally and federally-mandated to provide services for students with disabilities, districts end up diverting general fund money to cover the costs of special education.

“One thing to note in Wisconsin is local school districts’ revenue is capped at their revenue limit, so it’s a finite amount of money,” said Policy Forum researcher Anne Chapman. “If they have to pull from that general fund to help offset special education costs, that basically lowers the resources that can be used for all the rest of the students.”

High-poverty and high-minority districts feel the sharpest impact. Concentrated poverty is correlated with higher rates of students identified as needing special education.

“If you look across the state at all the districts and you rank them in terms of the amount of that flat revenue limit that has to be used to cover special education, the top districts are small and, in many cases, higher-poverty districts,” Chapman said.

They include the three Wisconsin districts that serve the highest percentage of Native American students: Menominee Indian, Lac Du Flambeau, and Bayfield.

“The Menominee Indian School District has to divert about a quarter of their revenue limit to cover special needs,” Chapman said. “So that means a quarter of their main source of resources is not available for the rest of their students.”

School districts have rallied around the issue of special education in recent months, at least partly because a relatively new school choice program is rubbing salt in the wound.

The Special Needs Scholarship Program provides taxpayer-funded vouchers for students with disabilities to attend private schools. This school year, the program ballooned from 252 students to 692. The cost of the vouchers is deducted from resident school districts.

The Policy Forum report points out that there is momentum building to revamp state support for special education. 

Along with Gov. Evers’ proposal to add $600 million in aid, a special ‘blue ribbon commission’ led by Republican lawmakers recommends an increase.

And there is public support. A recent Marquette Law School Poll found 73 percent of respondents favored spending more state dollars on special education.

“It seems to be because of this cascading effect it has on overall education,” Chapman said. “We already have inequities between school districts. When you add onto that this large chunk of a school district’s general fund that has to be sliced off the top to fund special education, many people think it’s exacerbating the inequities we already have."

Have a question about education you'd like WUWM's Emily Files to dig into? Submit it below.

_