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How do Michigan school districts pay for special education? An explainer.

Sep 14, 2016
Originally published on September 14, 2016 10:27 am

The idea for today’s State of Opportunity story comes from you. After we ran a piece about how special ed placements vary from district to district, several of you got in touch and asked: How do schools pay for special ed?

I went to Elliott Elementary in Holt to get some answers.

The first thing you notice about the special ed room at Elliott Elementary is the student teacher ratio: four students, four adults.

All the students in this room have Autism Spectrum Disorder, a developmental disability, and the adults in the room – one special education teacher, three teaching assistants known as paraprofessionals, or parapros – work with the students one-on-one.

So you have one student sprawled out on a bean bag next to his parapro, sounding out words that start with the letter A; another student works with a parapro on an art project at the roundtable; a third student does academic work with the teacher; and a fourth student plays with toy cars on the bright green play mat while his parapro, Shelly Brown, answers my questions.

Brown says she gets to the school at 8:30 a.m. in time to help the students off the bus, and she stays within arm's reach of the students as they move through their school day – roughly half of it spent in the special ed classroom, the other half in the general ed setting.

“My main focus is that student,” says Brown. “Making the work doable for them, so that they feel included and confident, that’s my primary goal.” She also helps her students stay on task and focused so they don’t distract the teacher or their typical-performing peers.

Holt kind of leads the pack when it comes to this type of approach to special ed. It’s called inclusion – where students with special needs spend a good chunk of their day in a general ed classroom with supports, like a parapro. Officials here believe inclusion is what’s best for students and student outcomes, so they lean in pretty hard to make it happen.

So what’s the price tag for all this?

Kim Cosgrove handles the school district’s finances, and she says the services in this one room cost the district roughly $350,000. That dollar amount covers the special ed teacher, the three parapros, and the psychologist and speech therapist that visit the students there.

How much does a general ed classroom cost the district? Cosgrove says anywhere between $100,000 - $120,000. That covers one teacher and a class of, say, 25 kids versus $350,000 for four kids.

Some districts really get behind inclusion, like Holt, though there are plenty that don’t. But whatever the approach, almost everyone says the same thing: When it comes to special education, there’s not enough money.

Here’s how Michigan's special ed funding stream works:

Every school year, each district has to fill out a special form detailing all their expenses for special ed. (Note: Cosgrove says anything that can be found in a regular classroom (e.g. chair, desk, smartboard) cannot be counted as a special education expense, even if it’s used for special education.)

The state of Michigan then reimburses the district for up to 28% of those expenses.

Where does the rest of the money come from? State per pupil funding, some federal money, and tax money from a special ed millage (not all counties have one, but many do.)

But it’s still not enough.

So Holt and other districts take money from the general fund to help cover the costs. Holt Finance Director Kim Cosgrove says her district uses “between 14% - 17% of their general funds to pay for special ed services.”

“We rob Peter to pay Paul,” says Wayne Abbott, special education director of Holt Public Schools. “It’s an unfunded mandate, that’s the bottom line.”

The mandate Abbott is talking about is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or I.D.E.A. That’s the federal law that guarantees all students with special needs get a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment.

But here’s the catch: Congress created the law, but Congress doesn’t really pay for it.

Michael Griffith is a school finance expert with the non-profit Education Commission of the States, which has done a 50-state comparison on special ed funding. He says Congress never promised to foot the whole bill, but it did promise to cover up to 40%. But it’s never even gotten close to that.

“What they fund is about 12% - 15% of special ed funding,” says Griffith, which comes to $11.5 billion. If they were to fund it at the 40 percent level, it would be closer to $30 - $35 billion per year.

So states, and increasingly districts, are on the hook to make up the difference.