Special Education

Special Education Funding Is ‘Fundamentally Broken,’ Researcher Says

By Lauraine Langreo — December 09, 2022 3 min read
A student visits a sensory room at Williams Elementary School, on Nov. 3, 2021, in Topeka, Kan.
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The system for funding special education in the United States is a complex mess that is widening inequities in access to quality services and putting many students at risk for failure in school.

That is the conclusion of Tammy Kolbe, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Vermont, who has conducted extensive research about the funding of special education in this country. Kolbe spoke to Education Week reporters and editors on a Zoom call Dec. 9.

To begin with, Kolbe points out that while the number of students who qualify for special education services has increased and the costs of those services have soared, federal funding for those services has stayed largely flat over the past two decades.

The complex, disjointed system for funding makes it very difficult to examine the true cost of special education and what an appropriate level of funding should look like. But Kolbe and other researchers are trying to tackle that complexity and, in turn, figure out what funding approaches might serve students with special needs more effectively.

In fact, earlier this year, Kolbe, Elizabeth Dhuey from the University of Toronto Scarborough, and Sara Menlove Doutre from WestEd, wrote a paper published by the Annenberg Center at Brown University arguing that special education funding is inequitable and funding increases alone won’t alleviate disparities across states. One of the biggest problems is that the formula the federal government uses to distribute the money to states hasn’t been updated in decades.

“The formula that the feds use to allocate the dollars is fundamentally broken,” Kolbe told Education Week during the Zoom call.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), established in 1975, requires schools to provide a free and appropriate public education to students with disabilities and authorizes the federal government to contribute money that equals 40 percent of the nation’s average K-12 spending per student. States and school districts have to make up the difference. States are also responsible for distributing the IDEA funds to their school districts.

But Kolbe said the federal government has never come close to meeting that 40 percent target. By her estimation, the federal special education grants to states during fiscal year 2017 comprised about 15 percent of the estimated additional cost of providing services for a student with an individualized education plan (IEP).

‘Different kinds of incentives and disincentives’ to identify and help students

There are many challenges with the current special education funding system, Kolbe said. For one, because cost-sharing arrangements between states and districts differ by state, not all states are “equally generous” with providing supplemental support for special education students, Kolbe said. This also means that a lot of the cost burden falls to local school districts.

And not all states and districts have the same capacity for raising revenue so they might not always be able to pay the additional costs of providing services for students with disabilities.

“[It] creates different kinds of incentives and disincentives to identify and service students,” Kolbe said. But that shouldn’t be the case. Theoretically, two students with the same disability—one living in Vermont and the other in Mississippi—should have access to the same supports and services, she said.

“My access to services should not differ whether I’m in Michigan, California, or Texas, Florida, and yet they do. This is a big deal—we’ve got to figure that out,” Kolbe added.

The good news, though, is that there are states already evaluating their funding models and looking for better solutions, Kolbe said. For example, the Ohio legislature is seeking to modernize its K-12 funding formula and examining special education funding will be part of that analysis.

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