Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Fund special ed just like we would for vouchers, and stop all those annoying referenda!

If you're annoyed by the prospect of having to deal with referenda to keep your community's public schools afloat, State Sen. Chris Larson recently brought up a way that could avoid some of those ballot questions. Why not have the state pay more for special ed, and lower your district's property taxes in the process?
Larson, a Democrat from Milwaukee, called on Republican lawmakers to convene a special session to use some of the state's budget surplus to raise state reimbursement of special education costs to 90%. A Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo requested by Larson showed the move could cost about $970 million annually, if costs next year are similar to this year.

Republicans previously rejected calls to raise the reimbursement rate. Gov. Tony Evers had proposed raising the rate to 60%, after calls for an increase from a broad coalition of business executives, public school leaders and private school leaders. Republicans walked it back to 33%, a slight increase from the previous rate of 30%.

That leaves districts on the hook to cover the rest of their costs. Most districts had to pull between $1,000 and $2,000 in regular education funding for each district student to cover special education services in the 2019-20 school year, according to a report by the Education Law Center, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that advocates for equitable school funding.
In addition, previous studies have shown that many higher-poverty districts have higher percentages of students in need of special education than schools in more affluent district, which furthers constrains resources for those often higher-cost services. For example, the Education Law Center noticed that Milwaukee Public Schools have to deal with higher burdens from special education services than the North Shore suburb of Whitefish Bay does.
The special education reimbursement shortfalls tend to be highest for districts with higher rates of poverty, an analysis by the Education Law Center found, as those districts have higher numbers of students with disabilities who need special education services....

[For example], in the 2019-20 school year, 84% of MPS students qualified as low income, and 20% were identified as having disabilities. In Whitefish Bay, 2% of students were low income, and 11% had disabilities. MPS had to use about $2,000 of its general funding per student to cover special education costs, while Whitefish Bay had to pull about $1,100 per student.
Larson then combined the two concepts and noted that if the state funded 90% of those special ed costs, there would be a much lower need for referenda, because schools wouldn't need to use as much of their "regular" property-tax supported funding to pay for special ed.
Unreimbursed special education costs were equivalent to 63.8% of the annual dollars sought via operating referendum in those 68 districts.

In 16 districts, unreimbursed special education costs accounted for 100% or more of the annual operating referendum amount

Two-thirds of districts with operating referenda had unreimbursed special education costs equivalent to at least half of the annual referendum amount

57.0% of the recently-passed Milwaukee Public Schools referendum ($143.5 million out of $252 million) can be attributed to unreimbursed special education costs.

Another reason Larson chose the 90% reimbursement figure is that it's the same percentage as voucher schools get for their special needs scholarships that go to students with special needs that attend those voucher schools. This costs of this state-funded program for voucher schools has risen substantially since it became law in 2017, including an increase of more than 50% in funding for this current school year.

So if it's good enough to raise funding for voucher school special ed, why wouldn't it be good enough for the rest of the state? Or at least give each school the $15,000+ per special education student in state funding that voucher schools get under the special needs scholarship.

It's yet another example of how 14 years of GOP favortism towards voucher schools have hurt our community schools and the students and parents who rely on them, and led to higher property taxes for all of us. And it's yet another thing that has to be fixed when we get new legislators and fair maps in place for the next session.

1 comment:

  1. As the parent of a former public school's special needs student, couldn't a group of parents, or public schools get together and sue the State legislature for unequal treatment?