(Noting my post lamenting that the Special Education Task Force proposed by Senate Bill 3 lacks the inclusion of parents, my wife, Mrs. PP made a point to explain to me why I’m mistaken, and offered a guest post on why instead of including parents in the proposed legislation, the entire concept proposed by Senate Bill 3 should be scrapped.)
You don’t really want a Special Education Task Force and here’s why…
by Dr. Michelle Powers
For those of you who know me, you understand why I’ve written this post for SDWC. I do happen to be married to PP, but that’s about as far as my direct involvement with his work and mine interact. But, since he decided to start writing about education, and in particular special education, it seems like the time was right.
Just so you know I do have a base to operate from for this commentary. Here is a little about me…I have a degree in Elementary and Special Education, a MA in Special Education, an Ed.S in Pre K-12 principal and a doctorate in educational leadership. I worked as the assistant state director of special education for the state of SD when the Extraordinary Cost Fund (ECF) was first put into place, led the Extraordinary Cost Fun panel for several years, finished my career in state government as the state director of special education, moved to Brookings School District where I worked until 2016 as the director of special education.
Currently, I am an assistant professor at Augustana University, teaching education and special education undergraduate and graduate courses. And, I’m the mom of 7 great kids, including my soon to be 14 year old daughter, who is on the Autism Spectrum and who has received special education services since she was 16 months old.
Since you might not be an education nerd like me, let me give you a little history. In 1996, South Dakota legislature set aside a pool of money, forming the very first ECF board and promulgated rules to address public school district shortages in budgeting for special education costs. This set aside served for many years to meet the needs of districts with students in need of special education whose costs could not be met with the funding available from federal and state dollars. From time to time, there were even years when the fund rolled a good amounts of state funds from one year to the next because school districts had not needed the funds from the extraordinary cost fund.
Let’s fast forward to 2016, when South Dakota passed legislation providing a half-cent raise to the sales tax to fund a targeted increase in teacher salaries. It is important to note that the ½ cent sales tax generated general funds, with nothing dedicated to special education teacher salaries.
Why is that important you might ask? Because in South Dakota, there is a separate funding stream comprised of a formula driven by the number of students in special education, along with a calculation of local effort (taxes) which is how all special education staff, including special education teachers are funded. It is also the pot of money used by the local school district to secure and pay for services, including day programs and residential programs (all components of ensuring a free appropriate public education known as FAPE under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). When this bucket of special education funds runs out, schools apply for funding via the ECF board.
As you might know, in 2016, school districts were required to use the new monies generated by the ½ cent sales tax to increase their teachers salaries, and so they did. The unfortunate, and I would counter, highly unanticipated outcome of raising ALL teacher salaries is that in 2016, there was no influx of comparable sales tax revenue flowing to the special education formula. There was a minor adjustment to the overall funding amounts of the formula, but it, in no way, shape or form, could be considered commensurate to the 10-12% jump in salaries schools were now obligated to provide. Every district’s negotiated agreement for teacher salaries jumped, meaning all teacher salaries (including special education teacher salaries) jumped. If you look at school district budgets, including special education budgets, they are comprised primarily (probably 80-85% on average) of staff. The rest of the special education budget basically goes to paying for specialty services, day programs, and out-of-district placements. All the special education teaching staff received the same large raise as the general education teachers, but the funding source for these staff has not seen a comparable increase.
Schools that already struggled to make their special education budget stretch were placed even further in the red. This is why the alarming increase in applications to the ECF has occurred. In our current situation, the federal and state funding currently being provided is never going to catch up to the ½ cent increase provided in the general fund. (Don’t even get me started with talk about full funding from the feds – that was promised in 1976 and we’re still waiting….)
And here’s why I am saying you don’t really want a Special Education Task Force. The reality is, as a state, we now have a built-in discrepancy between the two formulas and no amount of conversation about how many students we identify or how much a service costs will change this fact.
What you will likely end up doing, however, by creating this workgroup, is to disenfranchise our families who have children in special education- not to mention the wasted dollars in gathering this group repeatedly to seek answers to what I submit are the wrong questions (identification rates, costs of services).
If families perceive the intent of the Special Education Task Force is to attempt to somehow arbitrarily limit or unfairly restrict the identification and services to students in need of special education, there will be a response so loud and intense, the legislators will wish they’d never uttered the words “task force”.
Fortunately, there is a solution if the legislature feels the need to meet in a group. The State of South Dakota has an Advisory Panel for Special Education which is comprised of parents of children in need of special education. It meets quarterly and its members are appointed by the Governor. It is the role of these families to advise and assist the Department of Education and the state in meeting the needs of our children with disabilities. I would encourage legislators to consider tapping this existing (and federally mandated group) to have a conversation about the questions they have about our systems of identification and the issues being faced today with inadequate funding.
Working towards better access to quality educational programs is always a good conversation to have and I promise you the families will cut to the chase quickly and without fanfare- they are all about making sure South Dakota is doing the best job possible for its children in need of special education.