Education Funding

How Congress’ underfunding of special education shortchanges us all

By Amanda Litvinov

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The pages of the learn-to-read books in Vicki Zasadny’s special education classroom are tattered, smudged, and marked. Some of the information is outdated. That’s what happens when textbooks are 15 years old.

The books tell a somber story about the chronic underfunding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Since the law was passed 40 years ago, the federal government has failed to provide even half of the funding it pledged to help schools educate kids with special needs.

Those costs have always been shifted to states and local districts, whose current economies are in various stages of recovery from the financial crisis that kicked off in 2007. In the end, special needs students receive only the materials and services districts can afford.

While students in Western Wyandotte County, Kan., are getting by with outdated books and must contend with ballooning class sizes, their peers in a nearby district—where incomes are higher—receive iPads.

KS special ed classroom 2
Vicki Zasadny, a 35-year veteran teacher, sees the effects of underfunding in her special education classroom every day.

“I thought the federal education programs were meant to help equalize those discrepancies, to help us meet the needs of all students, not just those who live in rich neighborhoods,” says Zasadny, who has taught in Kansas schools for 35 years.

The state used to do a better job of making up for the shortfall in federal funds. “We used to have money for updated materials and professional development,” she says. “Now we pretty much have money for paper and pencils.”

Worst of all, two years ago the district was forced to cut paraeducators’ hours by five hours per week, leaving students without their help at the beginning and the end of the day.

Education funding is a sore subject in Kansas, where Gov. Sam Brownback and his allies in the state legislature have stunted the state’s economy by shelling out tax breaks for rich corporations and wealthy individuals while making historic cuts to education spending. When adjusted to account for inflation, spending per student was 16 percent lower in 2014 than in 2008.

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled last year that the state’s education spending “is inadequate from any rational perspective of the evidence.” They suggested that spending should be increased by at least $802 per student annually.

Incredibly, Gov. Brownback’s latest budget proposal would instead cut another $44.5 million from the state’s public schools and universities.

Vicki Zasadny says she and her colleagues are working harder than ever and they have the support of her principal, superintendent, and other administrators. But there is only so much any of them can do within the federal and state funding systems. Zasadny says it makes her sad to know that she’s not able to meet the needs of each child the way she once did.

“When we see something like a student unable to make progress in reading, we need to adjust something to help them,” she says.

“But we can’t increase their time in special education without making the classes larger, and we can’t provide more one-on-one attention without more staff. When kids are struggling to the degree that our special education students are, we really should be working with them in groups of three or less, and some kids really need a group of one. But that just doesn’t happen now because we don’t have enough staff or enough hours in the day.”

‘We can’t look away’

Andrew Benton is a Kansas City, Kan., paraeducator who helps students with emotional or behavioral disorders succeed in the general classroom. He helps them stay on task or take notes, and sometimes assists teachers by reviewing a previously taught lesson with a small group still learning the material.

Andrew Benton 1
Special education paraprofessional Andrew Benton faces a pay cut of $1,500 next year.

Benton worries about the students with more severe emotional problems. The one who cuts himself on the tape dispenser or hits his head against the wall. The girl who is three years behind in reading. The students who are trying to keep up but have little parental support.

But he thinks of each school day as “an adventure,” and says he rarely feels discouraged. His students’ needs motivate him to do more. And after the last bell rings, Benton hits the books himself. For several years, he’s been working toward a teaching degree.

“It’s nerve-wracking trying to figure out how I’m going to finance each semester,” he says about having his hours cut two years ago. “So far, I’ve found a way to make it work, whether adding small tutoring jobs after school or taking on student loans.”

Benton is more concerned about how the lack of education funding is affecting his students.

“The state keeps changing standards and the tests that go along with them, but they don’t supply money for updated materials. I’ve worked in schools where they are using the same books we had when I was in school,” Benton says.

“We can’t look away from the fact that these kids’ education would be better if we fully fund IDEA,” Benton says.

The fight for full funding

Before IDEA, U.S. schools educated only one of every five children with disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Some states had laws that specifically denied education to children who had developmental disabilities or were deaf, blind, or emotionally disturbed. Many of those children would be institutionalized and have no opportunity to be educated.

In 1975, federal lawmakers, with the support of advocacy and family groups, revolutionized how public schools educate special needs kids.

Since then, the majority of children with disabilities have been educated in their neighborhood public schools in the general classroom. Their high school graduation rates, college enrollments, and job opportunities increased dramatically. Today, employment rates for youth served under IDEA are twice those of older adults with similar disabilities who did not have the benefit of IDEA.

But for all the law has accomplished for the students it serves—which is now about 13 percent of all enrolled students, according to the most current data of the National Center for Education Statistics—the federal government’s failure to meet its funding obligation has wreaked havoc on state and local budgets and at times left districts scrambling to meet student needs.

Although Congress committed to paying 40 percent of the average cost to educate a child with disabilities, it has never met even half of that commitment. Currently, the federal share of funding for special education services to approximately 6.9 million students is about 16 percent.

As a result, costs are shifted to the states, forcing school districts to either raise taxes or dip into general education budgets and cut other critical services to make up for the shortfall. The federal cost shift to states in 2014 alone was $17.6 billion (based on data from the U.S. Department of Education Budget Service and the Congressional Research Service).

In January, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) reintroduced the IDEA Full Funding Act on behalf of a bipartisan group of legislators: Reps. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), David McKinley (R-W.V.), Tim Walz (D-Minn.), Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.), and Dave Reichert (R-Wash.). The bill proposes regular increases in IDEA spending that would result in full funding by 2025.

“Four decades is far too long for states and schools to wait for the help that was promised them when Congress enacted IDEA,” says NEA Government Relations Director Mary Kusler. We strongly support the bipartisan effort to meet the noble goal of fully funding IDEA.”

The bill is an attempt to put a spotlight on the crises the federal funding issue has caused. It is not expected to make it out of committee.

“Are we willing to let go of the idea that every child should be educated to the fullest extent possible?” asks Zasadny in frustration. “That would just be catastrophic.”

“The bottom line is that these kids’ education suffer when we decide at the federal or state level that there just isn’t funding to meet their needs,” says Benton.

In February, Benton learned that his position was cut. He has the option to reapply, but will have to absorb a pay cut of roughly $1,500, which is what he intends to do.

“I’m not going anywhere. We don’t have the ideal setup or resources, but every day I will use my experience to help these kids get the best out of what we’ve got.”

2 responses to “How Congress’ underfunding of special education shortchanges us all

  1. Here’s how it really works in the real world of teaching in Wichita, Kansas. The favored darlings of the system do NOT need a degree, do NOT need a certification or anything else — they are simply awarded the REAL teaching jobs with contracts period. They take time OFF whenever they feel like it AND if they choose to continue their education — it is all funded by the State of Kansas. These favored ones have really small class sizes and plenty of planning periods AND they are always sick or have family emergencies. The Wichita Kansas children learn very little and are literally warehoused. Oh, yes, of course, there are a few elite groups that are put into special programs they do get a teacher who has the REAL knowledge of the teaching subject BUT for the most part, these poor Wichita children are simply warehoused, their parents are educated by the same system that they must keep their mouths shut and obey the system AND even though they don’t like what’s happening to junior — they don’t know what to do about it.

  2. I had no idea how poorly congress is funding special education. They can allocate billions and billions for defense and Homeland security, but students don’t matter.
    No wonder there is no running water in my daughters classroom where diapers are changed and mucus is swabbed away.

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