Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Brighton Republican, speaks on the House floor April 8, 2021. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)
A bipartisan bill that passed its first committee test Wednesday would permanently change the way the state funds special education.
Colorado has never paid school districts the full amount needed to serve students with disabilities, according to a model developed in 2006 that’s never been adjusted for inflation.
Senate Bill 22-127 — sponsored by Sens. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Brighton Republican, and Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat — would increase the per-pupil amount for all students with disabilities to $1,750 in the fiscal year beginning July 1 and require it to grow by the rate of inflation in future years. What’s known as Tier A of the state’s special education funding model currently 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. Increasing it to $1,750 per student would cost the state $53 million.
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The bill would also increase the amount of state spending for students with more significant needs by $40 million, and tie that part of the funding model, known as Tier B, to inflation as well.
Tier B provides an additional per-pupil amount for students who have multiple disabilities, as well as those with certain conditions 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. This is the part of the funding model that the state has never fully paid.
Last year, state lawmakers spent $63.3 million on students with multiple disabilities or disabilities that require more specialized care, amounting to $2,629 per Tier B student. This year’s budget provided about $3,390 per Tier B student, according to the Consortium of Directors of Special Education.
That means this year, the Legislature funded 56.5% of the $6,000 cost per Tier B student — the most ever — up from 43% the previous year. The rest of the cost burden falls on local districts, who are required under federal law to accommodate students with special needs. Supporters of SB-127 say that the $40 million infusion would cover approximately 85% of the allowed amount per Tier B student, significantly reducing that burden.
This bill is a positive step towards helping local school districts pay for the cost of special education programs.
– Tamara Durbin, executive director of Northeast Colorado BOCES
Kirkmeyer acknowledged that SB-127 would come with a “huge” price tag. “It’s been our obligation and we haven’t met it for 16 years,” she told the Senate Education Committee.
Tamara Durbin, the executive director of Northeast Colorado BOCES, recalled how a small rural school served by her Board of Cooperative Education Services had to combine kindergarten and first grade so it would have enough money to hire a full-time special education teacher.
“This bill is a positive step towards helping local school districts pay for the cost of special education programs,” Durbin testified to the committee.
Even if the state chose to pay the full $6,000 per Tier B student, experts and policymakers agree that number, determined in 2006, wouldn’t be enough to meet their needs. The exact costs of special education can vary based on a student’s disabilities and their geographic location.
SB-127 would task the state’s Special Education Fiscal Advisory Committee with analyzing available information and reporting to the legislature on the actual costs of providing special education services to children with disabilities. The advisory committee’s report would also have to include an analysis of special education funding in other states as compared with Colorado.
The Senate Education Committee approved SB-127 unanimously on Wednesday, and the bill now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee for consideration. The bill’s House sponsors are Reps. Colin Larson, a Littleton Republican, and Julie McCluskie, a Democrat from Dillon.
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