Special education push largely unfulfilled as Kan. legislative session wraps

Kansas hasn't funded special education at the 92 percent of excess cost level required by state law in more than a decade, a shortfall of $110 million.
Published: May. 1, 2023 at 6:12 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - A major push by public educators and Kansas Governor Laura Kelly looks to largely be unfulfilled. When lawmakers wrapped up the legislative session Friday, it included the passage of a small increase in funding for special education. Kansas lawmakers ended the legislation session without passing a proposed $72 million increase for next year, instead funding a 1% bump of about $7.5 million for special education.

Butler County Interlocal Director of Special Education April Hilyard said the increase approved by state lawmakers won’t even cover the increase in their health insurance costs. There’s been a strong push for a substantial increase in special education funding as Kansas hasn’t funded special education at the 92%-of-excess cost level required by state law in more than a decade. The current shortfall is placed at $110 million.

The Butler County Special Education Interlocal is serving 100 more students than last year and that growth isn’t expected to slow down.

“We’re on track to serve at least 100 more students next year than we’re serving now,” Hilyard said.

Hilyard said the amount of money per student has decreased in the last two years as state special education funding remains largely unchanged. That’s why there was hope for a significant change, addressing student needs and staffing to provide services.

“We’re not trying to get rich. Our staff is not trying to get rich. We’re just trying to maintain our staff so they don’t go somewhere else and work somewhere else,” Hilyard said. “We’re trying to provide a livable wage for our paraeducators that are making 10, 11 dollars an hour.”

She said without the increase, there are two options: either not providing pay increases for staff, or asking the nine school districts the interlocal serves to provide more money for their general funds.

“Our students with special needs they’re general education students first. So they access the gym, the cafeteria, art, music and P.E.” Hilyard said.

She said the districts cover about 25% of their costs.

“It hurts everybody when we had to ask districts to provide from their general education funds to help provide special education services that are provided by law,” Hilyard said.

She said it comes down to providing the best support and services to their students, and part of that includes consistency with staff.

“It’s important for them to build rapport with staff, and if you have a different para every other week because we can’t maintain them, then that’s a negative impact for our students,” Hilyard said.

The state’s education budget includes the creation of a Special Education Funding Taskforce that will study and make changes to the existing funding formula. Republican lawmakers say some school districts receive more funding than the excess amount and that’s why the state needs to look into the funding formula. Hilyard said that is not the case with the nine districts the Butler County Special Education Interlocal serves.