Special Education

Campaign K-12 Notebook

September 16, 2008 4 min read

How much money one state spends on special education is an unlikely focus of controversy in a presidential race. But when a previously little-known governor makes a splash as the mother of a special-needs child after getting her party’s vice presidential nod, that seemingly parochial topic can suddenly make news.

In accepting the No. 2 spot on the GOP ticket, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska—whose youngest child has Down syndrome—made an explicit appeal to families of children with disabilities in her speech to the Republican National Convention. (“McCain Promises to ‘Shake Up’ Schools,” Sept. 10, 2008.)

Soon after the Sept. 3 speech ended, a rumor started zipping around the Internet that the first-term governor had cut her state’s spending for special education by 62 percent. As the charge was repeated from blog to blog, the implication was that Ms. Palin was being hypocritical in pledging to be a White House “friend and advocate” for such families.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, holding her son Trig, appears with her husband, Todd, on Sept. 3 in St. Paul.

Critics similarly maintained that the governor had slashed funding for Covenant House Alaska, an Anchorage-based nonprofit organization that serves homeless, runaway, and at-risk youths, including teenage mothers. Many cited an online article written by a Washington Post reporter that made the allegation.

The problem? Both of the charges against Gov. Palin are inaccurate. Her critics apparently have misread state budget documents.

The evidence given for the supposed cut in special education stems from a part of the fiscal 2007 budget for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. In that budget year, a section of the budget dealing with “special schools” included funding for the Alaska School for the Deaf, students who are patients at the Alaska Psychiatric Hospital, and the Alaska Challenge Youth Academy, a statewide boot-camp-style program for at-risk youths. The budget that year for special schools was about $8.27 million.

The next year, fiscal 2008, the special-schools budget is shown as approximately $3.16 million, leading to the accusation that Gov. Palin had cut the department’s budget for such programs by more than half. The difference in funding, however, occurred because the Alaska Challenge Youth Academy became a budget line item of its own. In fiscal 2008, the academy received about $5.31 million.

For the current year, fiscal 2009, the youth academy was budgeted at $6.08 million. The other special schools were funded at the same level they were the year before, approximately $3.16 million. Overall, funding for the programs that had been in the “special schools” category in 2007 decreased by 0.6 percent by fiscal 2009, excluding the youth academy. The state says the decrease in funding is because fewer students needed the services.

So just how much does Alaska spend on special education? Eric Fry, a spokesman for the state education department, explained that the state does not give any amount of money to districts designated solely for special education. Instead, it provides a 20 percent funding “bump” to districts that they can use for special education, vocational education, bilingual education programs, and gifted education.

So, a district with 5,000 students would be funded as if it had 6,000 students, he said.

Gov. Palin and the legislature have approved a funding formula that would provide increased state aid for students with the most severe disabilities. In fiscal 2009, the funding for this small portion of the special education population is $49,320 per student. By fiscal 2011, it will rise to $73,840. A bipartisan legislative task force worked on a revamp of the state’s funding formula for schools that included those increases, Mr. Fry said.

As for the charges about a cut to Covenant House Alaska, they were based on a document that shows where a proposed state contribution of $5 million to the organization was crossed out, the number “$3,900,000” written in, and the governor’s initials written next to the notation. Ms. Palin has line-item-veto authority.

Deirdre A. Cronin, the executive director of Covenant House Alaska, said that the organization’s total funding was not reduced, however. In a press release, she noted that only 10 percent to 15 percent of its operating funds comes from state grants in any one year.

In this case, she said, “[d]espite some press reports to the contrary, our operating budget was not reduced. Our $3.9 million appropriation is directed toward a multiyear capital project and it is our understanding that the state simply opted to phase in its support for this project over several years, rather than all at once in the current budget year.”—Christina A. Samuels

Students Can Have Their Say In Mock Election on Internet

Most high school students won’t be old enough to vote in the presidential election on Nov. 4. But they may cast ballots in the National Student/Parent Mock Election, which will be held Oct. 30. Every U.S. student, parent, and educator is allowed to participate, for free, at www.nationalmockelection.org.

Students will get the opportunity to vote in the presidential contest between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, as well as contested congressional, state, and local elections. They can also voice their opinions on major issues, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the economy. And they will be able to compare past presidents and choose which ones they would support today if they could.

The effort is supported by Google, the Internet company based in Mountain View, Calif.; the National Association of Broadcasters’ Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Washington; Pearson, an educational publisher based in Upper Saddle River, N.J.; and others. The results of the election will be posted on the Web site on Oct. 30. —Alyson Klein

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A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 2008 edition of Education Week as Campaign K-12 Notebook

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