Kansas educators pushing for increase in state aid for special education

Increases in state funding for special education have happened in recent years, but it isn’t keeping up with the costs for these services.
Published: Apr. 20, 2022 at 10:49 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - It’s been more than a decade since Kansas lawmakers provided the funding level for special education set by state law. The K-12 budget is one of the main items left for lawmakers to finish this legislative session when they return Monday. Educators are pushing for an increase in state aid for special education.

Increases in state funding for special education have happened in recent years, but it isn’t keeping up with the costs for these services. The Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) estimates the shortfall reaching about $150 million. That’s a cost then put on the school districts to cover, often to the detriment of other students.

There is a magic number when it comes to state aid for special education: 92%.

“Federal kicks in a little bit of money and then whatever federal doesn’t cover, that’s where the state’s 92% comes in,” said West Central Kansas Special Education Cooperative Director of Special Education Kyle Carlin. “The state says, ‘we’ll fund 92 percent of what is there, what is left.’”

School districts are responsible for covering the remaining 8%. But it’s been since 2011 since state funding for special education reached 92%.

“Right now, they’re only funding 76%,” Carlin said.

The special education co-op Carlin represents serves Hays, Ellis, Victoria, and La Crosse.

Carlin said districts are balancing where to pull their funds to ensure these services.

“It’s not a choice. You don’t get to say we don’t have the funding for that, so we’re only going to do half of what the IEP says,” he said. “We have to do the whole thing. So, the real challenge is making sure we’re meeting the needs.”

Carlin added, “Money is going to come from somewhere and all that does is make it harder for all of our schools to do all the things they need to do, not just special education.”

It’s at a time when they’re seeing more students needing special education resources.

“Needs that they’re [presented] with are more complex, more challenging, and require more resources to meet that,” Carlin said.

He said it’s visible in the co-op he represents.

“Our occupational therapist, we went from 84 to 125 (students) in a two-year span, almost a 50 percent increase. And we see similar increases for physical therapy, for social work and mental health services, but also for our reading and math services,” Carlin said.

Earlier this month, the Kansas State Board of Education recommended the legislature allocated $155 million to special education for next year, reaching that 92%. The board president said the state has the funds to do it.

“For the legislature to say, ‘we can’t afford this,’ I just don’t buy that,” Carlin said. “We can afford this, and we need to do this. "

Carlin said the funding situation has a knock-on effect, making it more difficult to hire and retain staff. He said raises, benefits and training are categories where funding is cut. Data from KSDE shows of the nearly 1,400 vacancies in Kansas schools this spring, the area with the most was special education. There were about 300 unfilled positions which were higher than last fall. The total includes teachers, paras, and clinical staff.

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