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Special ed drives school funding debate

ST. PAUL - Teaching special education students costs more every year, most education experts and policymakers agree. But there is far less consensus, particularly among state lawmakers, on how to pay for that growing expense. Because of rising pr...

ST. PAUL - Teaching special education students costs more every year, most education experts and policymakers agree.

But there is far less consensus, particularly among state lawmakers, on how to pay for that growing expense.

Because of rising program costs and several years of stagnant state and federal funding, school districts across Minnesota took $416 million from their regular classrooms to cover special education needs in 2005, according to the state Education Department.

Some believe that contributes to failed school levy votes and makes larger class sizes more likely because schools don't have money to pay for growing teacher expenses.

"My feeling is special education is kind of the sleeping giant in our education system," said Minnesota state Sen. LeRoy Stumpf.


Special education programs serve children with a range of disabilities including speech impairment, emotional disorders and traumatic brain injury. An estimated 118,500 Minnesota students received special education in 2005, the Education Department says.

Low-funded mandate

The federal government pays states less than half of what it promised when special education laws were passed three decades ago. Its mandate was supposed to be matched with funding to cover 40 percent of special education costs, but it is covering only about 17 percent of expenses in Minnesota schools this year. The rest is paid for with state and local funds.

Historically, school districts were reimbursed by the state for 68 percent of their special education teacher costs. That changed in 2003 when Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Legislature, faced with a budget deficit exceeding $4 billion, halted state special education aid increases. That school aid has essentially remained flat for the past four years.

In the meantime, school districts continued to see special education costs increase. The result is a so-called "cross subsidy" in which districts use funds meant for regular classroom instruction to plug holes in their special education budgets.

Views of StumpfStumpf, the top senator on education issues, said school district leaders, education lobbying groups and others have collectively told him the Legislature should tackle special education funding this year.

Stumpf said he wants nearly all of new K-12 education funding go toward special education, but that would leave little for new regular state aid increases over the next two years. And it would not fund inflation increases.

"I've always said that we've got to get the basic things done first," the Plummer Democrat said.


Pawlenty's planPawlenty's education budget slows the growth of special education costs while funding other initiatives, such as extra money for districts that reform their high school curriculum, Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said.

Pawlenty proposes 2 percent annual increases for special education funding and similar percentage increases for regular school aid. State estimates show the cost for providing those services is growing at 4.5 percent per year.

"We tried to put (in) what we thought would get us started," Seagren said. "I think the reality is we can't do everything we want to do all in one fell swoop."

State officials don't think the federal government will provide new special education money. President Bush has proposed spending slightly less on special education in the next two years.

U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said much can happen before Congress passes a budget. Special education funding could increase, he said.

"This is the beginning of the discussion," Coleman said during a recent conference call with reporters.

Legislators' opinionsOne way to provide more special education money to local districts would be to bump the state reimbursement for staff costs from 68 percent to 75 percent, said Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, who introduced a bill calling for that increase.

Howes said his hometown school district, like others across the state, gets 60 cents in state and federal aid for every dollar it spends on special education.


"They're going into the hole almost on a daily basis," he said of schools.

House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said his caucus doesn't have a special education funding plan. Instead, it will rely on the House education finance committee to address that issue as well as regular classroom funding increases and the implementation of all-day, every-day kindergarten across the state.

Fixing special education would allow districts tolook at those other issues, Howes said. "We need to correct the problems one at a time," he said.

Sen. Rod Skoe said pumping more state money into special education could free other dollars to reduce class sizes or maintain course offerings. "We cannot expect our schools to address other issues, like rising class sizes, unless we give them the funding and support to pay for special education needs," said Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook.

Wente works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Herald.

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