Senator Greg Clausen: Special Education Funding Deficits Reaching Crisis Levels

Minnesota has a long tradition of leadership in providing special education services. But our schools are facing immense difficulty continuing to provide for all students due to the rising cost of special education, cumbersome paperwork requirements and lack of sufficient federal government funding support.

Minnesota’s special education gap, known as the special education cross-subsidy, is expected to reach more than $700 million this year. These cross-subsidy costs are squeezing the budgets of Minnesota schools, and the underfunding of special education has been a long-standing problem. The federal government is required to fund 40 percent of special education costs, yet federal funding levels are currently much lower. Between the rising need and insufficient state and federal aid, the cross-subsidy gap is nearing crisis proportions. More and more school districts are forced to use general fund dollars that could otherwise be used for compensating teachers, program initiatives, and keeping class sizes down.

More than $2.5 billion is spent on special education in Minnesota annually. The federal government only picks up 7.2 percent, the state 63.3 percent, and school districts have to make up 29.5 percent of the costs. Unfortunately, 27 percent of state education spending is directed toward special education due to the absence of required federal funding.

The issue is not a matter of whether special education services are made available to students. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures students with a disability are provided a free, appropriate public education to meet their individual needs. It is important that special education students’ individual needs are currently being and continue to be met. The issue is a matter of how special education expenses are paid for and who is being held accountable for the funding.

The impact of Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Public Schools’ cross-subsidy is about $24.54 million, or $805 per students. If special education costs were fully funded, or funded to the federal 40 percent requirement, our school districts could use the additional student funds to pay for program initiatives and other critical needs.

So, what steps can we take to solve this funding gap? It is time to make a bold move on special education and fund a good portion of the gap. I also support the bipartisan solutions to reducing the onerous special education paperwork leading to teacher burnout, staffing shortages, and less time with students. Minnesota exceeds federal IDEA reporting and paperwork requirements as verified in a 2013 state auditor’s report. This is an area the Legislature will address in 2019.

Some of the legislation expected to be introduced this year would reduce requirements in the individualized education program (or IEP) for each student to narrow the scope of what teachers have to report about a student’s performance, while another bill simplifies the process for changes to a student’s IEP. There is also legislation to set up a new legislative working group focused on special education to explore solutions to the funding shortages.

We can’t count on the federal government to help us – it has never fulfilled its promise to fund 40 percent of special education costs to the states. Special education funding has been an incessant problem for too long. I am all in on finding bipartisan solutions to this growing problem facing our schools.

To contact me with your ideas and feedback, you can reach me by phone at 651-296-4120 or by email at sen.greg.clausen@senate.mn. You can also mail letters or pay me a visit in the Minnesota Senate Building, Room 2233, right across the street from the Capitol.

Senator Greg Clausen
Greg Clausen lives in Apple Valley and represents District 57 in the southern Twin Cities metropolitan area.

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