Colorado will have some extra money this year to spend on early intervention and special education for young people with disabilities. The $10 million influx comes as a result of a last-minute amendment to the state budget.
Some state legislators and educators fear, however, that even with the increased investment, the state doesn’t come close to meeting students’ needs.
“The idea is that we’re supposed to close gaps for our students and catch them up,” said Rob Gould, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and a special education teacher in Denver Public Schools. “But when our teachers are always taking on additional responsibilities, additional caseloads and more challenges, then the reality of trying to close those gaps — it just goes further and further away.”
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According to a Monday memo, which nonpartisan staff prepared for state lawmakers on the Legislative Interim Committee on School Finance, Colorado’s budget for the current fiscal year includes approximately $220 million for students with disabilities. That’s on top of the state’s $198 million in federal grant funds for special education and early intervention, which includes money that Congress wove into coronavirus relief legislation passed in March.
But local school districts take on the majority of the funding burden. When faced with budget shortfalls, they have to figure out ways to pay for special education, like increasing the number of students with disabilities assigned to a single teacher.
The state’s current two-tiered model for funding special education dates back to 2006, when legislators partnered with school district superintendents and chief financial officers to analyze funding models for special education in other states, said Lucinda Hundley, who heads the Consortium of Directors of Special Education. Hundley spoke during the interim school finance committee’s Tuesday meeting.
“What we ended up doing was establishing what we thought would be the fairest tiered model of special education funding that would equalize the benefits for all school districts,” Hundley explained.
Special education leaders are still satisfied with how the distribution model works, at least in theory. The problem? Colorado has never paid its full share.
Shortfall for kids with specialized needs
The largest tier of the state’s special education funding model, Tier A, includes $1,250 for each child with a disability who was counted during the prior school year. That per-pupil amount has not changed since 2006. Last year, Tier A special education funding totaled $136 million.
Tier B funding targets students who have certain disabilities that require more specialized care, such as serious emotional disabilities, blindness or deafness. State law allows for up to $6,000 per Tier B student, but the actual amount the state spends depends on how much lawmakers choose to allocate toward special education in a given year. Lawmakers spent $63.3 million last year on students with disabilities that require more specialized care, amounting to $2,629 per Tier B student in the 2020-2021 budget.
The actual costs to provide care for a given student can vary quite a bit within those tiers.
“The purpose always is to provide whatever services that child needs to enable them to maximally participate with their non-disabled peers in the most integrated setting possible,” Hundley said. “If you have a blind child who needs a Braillist, hard position to find. … You might have a Braillist attached to one blind child, because that may be the only blind child in that school district.”
Earlier this year, lawmakers agreed to an amendment to the 2021-2022 budget that directed an additional $10 million for Tier B special education students, increasing the funding to around $3,390 per student, according to the Consortium of Directors of Special Education. The amendment was originally proposed by Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, and Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Republican from Douglas County.
That means this year, the Legislature funded 56.5% of the $6,000 cost per Tier B student, up from 43% the previous year. The rest of the burden falls on local districts, who are required under federal law to accommodate students with special needs.
Even if Tier B students were funded at 100%, or $6,000 per student, that probably wouldn’t be enough.
“That $6,000 is in 2006 terms, not in today’s inflationary figures,” Hundley said. In recent years, local school districts have ended up paying around 65% of the cost of special education, while the state has paid about 20% and the federal government 15%.
Colorado’s Special Education Fiscal Advisory Committee wants the state to cover more of the cost of educating young people with disabilities.
However, the educators on the committee are used to having their recommendations disregarded during the budget process. In their most recent January report, they asked lawmakers to increase Tier A funding to $1,500 per student with disabilities, and fund Tier B students at 75%, leaving the rest to local school districts. The committee also recommended that the General Assembly pass laws that would trigger future funding increases to account for inflation.
The proposal would have required an additional $72 million from the state budget in the first year, and lawmakers didn’t make that happen during the spring 2021 budget process.
Zenzinger, who chairs the interim school finance committee, underscored the concerns around special education funding during the committee meeting Tuesday.
“This very firmly sits with us, with the Legislature,” she said, “to make this a priority.”
Gould, of the Denver teachers union, said a shortage of school nurses driven in part by the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the current challenges for special education. But he’s seen other needs growing for years.
Throughout his 24 years in special education, Gould said caseloads have increased from 15 to as many as 29 students assigned to a single teacher.
“That’s terrifying, because it was hard enough of a job doing a 1 to 15 ratio,” he said. The high workload is making it harder for schools to retain teachers and specialists who work with students with disabilities, he added.
“Eventually, that mantra — the thinking that we can just do more — eventually, that trickles down to students,” Gould said. “It hurts students, and it makes it difficult for students to get those services they need.”
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