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Special Education Funding Cap Sets Hard Deadline For Innovations

Jack, his mom Sarah Chatfield and his teacher Tia Reed pose with the cookies he's brought for the teachers at his IEP meeting. A team works with Jack and his family to create an individualized learning plan to accommodate his low vision.
Tennessee Watson
Jack, his mom Sarah Chatfield and his teacher Tia Reed pose with the cookies he's brought for the teachers at his IEP meeting. A team works with Jack and his family to create an individualized learning plan to accommodate his low vision.

In an effort to curb the rising costs of K-12 education, the state legislature voted to cap spending on special education during the 2018 Budget Session. Lawmakers also directed the Wyoming Department of Education to come up with efficiencies. While educators agree there’s room for improvements, they say Wyoming’s rural nature complicates things.

To get a sense of what it’s like for kids with special needs in Wyoming’s small towns, I spent an afternoon with six-year-old Jack and his teacher Tia Reed.  

Jack was excited about the visit from Mrs. Reed and wasn’t shy about meeting me.

Mrs. Reed asked Jack: “Can we go back to your room and get your coat and your outdoor cane and go for a walk?” And he responded with an enthusiastic yes before feeling for his cane in his classroom cubby.

Jack is visually impaired, and that day Mrs. Reed was going to help him practice using his cane to get from school to the neighboring community center.

His first challenge? A big old pickup truck barreling down the street.

But Jack knew to wait and listen for the sound of the engine to go away.

Then he said: “I think it’s safe.” Mrs. Reed agreed: “Ok. Let’s go.”

Jack rolled the cane back and forth in front of him, scanning the ground to find the curb, and then confidently crossed the street.

He was working on these skills with Mrs. Reed so that soon he’d be able to make the journey on his own.

But Reed, who is a teacher for the visually impaired and an orientation and mobility specialist, only gets to work with Jack a couple times a month.

That’s because Jack lives in the town of Saratoga, 80 miles up and over the Snowy Range Mountains from Mrs. Reed’s home in Albany County. The majority of the school year that route is closed, so Reed takes the long way around. She said that commute is nothing. Before she got her certification, Jack was working with a teacher who lived almost three hours away.  

“She would drive from Lander and see him just because that was the closest one. So I’m the closest one to Jack now,” explained Reed.

That kind of windshield time is not uncommon for teachers like Reed. When she’s not traveling to meet with individual clients like Jack, she also works half days at Laramie High School. She said there just aren’t that many specialists like her in Wyoming, and that’s part of what makes special education so expensive. The state spends about $230 million on it a year.

So in an effort to pare down the K-12 budget, the legislature is looking at special education.

Cody Senator Hank Coe, who serves on multiple education committees, said the funding model itself might be driving up the cost.  

“Because based on [Wyoming] Supreme Court decisions we had back in the 1990s,” Coe said, referring to the Campbell Decisions, “the choice was made by the Wyoming Legislature to reimburse special education at 100 percent.”

He said the current 100 percent reimbursement policy means Wyoming provides excellent special education services, but little incentive for districts to find efficiencies.

“You know, I think we have some duplication of resources that are used when it comes to dealing with special education,” said Coe. “How we share resources; that’s just one area where I think we can find some efficiencies, and we are hoping the Wyoming Department of Education can come up with that for us.”

And they better, because the legislature has capped the special education reimbursement for the next two years to the amount districts spend this year. The Wyoming Department of Education, or WDE, has six months to make recommendations about how to reduce spending without impacting services.

Peg Monteith said that will be tricky.

“If it’s a service a child has to have, you’re stuck.”

She is the Special Education Director for the Park County School District #6 up in Cody, and she has over 20 years of experience in the district, state and federal level.

I told her about Jack and Mrs. Reed, and she said it’s not uncommon for schools to hire contractors. She tries to share services with neighboring districts as much as she can, but she said sometimes: “You are going to pay $90 an hour for speech-language, or a teacher for the visually impaired because you simply have to choose.”

That’s because the federal government says schools have to meet students’ needs.

Monteith said the WDE could look at creating more salaried positions for specialists who would serve multiple districts in a given region. That would reduce the time and money it takes to negotiate a contract every time a school needs a specialist, and could help make personnel costs more predictable.

She’s excited Wyoming is working on solutions to the issues facing its small and isolated districts.

“If we come up with that answer we can take our show on the road actually, because we will have solved a problem for a lot of states,” said Monteith.

But she’s worried the statewide funding cap could get the state into trouble. If districts exceed the funding cap for special education, they’ll have to siphon money from their general funds.  

“When that happens, and I saw that happen in Colorado when I was the state director there,” Monteith said, “then it begins to impact all students, because you are reducing your funding for all students.”

Jack’s mom Sarah Chatfield is also thinking about the state’s bottom line. She said a strong investment now will pay off in the long run.

“The studies have shown that if he wasn’t a braille reader, there’s a 90 percent chance that he would either be underemployed or unemployed,” Chatfield said. “And for kids like Jack who do learn braille, then it’s a 90 percent chance he’ll earn what his peers earn.”

She wants him to be financially independent and able to follow his dreams.  

“I think it’s the mentality that he can grow up and be self-sufficient, and support a family.” She added emphatically: “Or go to Mars! Whatever he wants to do, he has the tools for it.”

In theory, lawmakers want that too. They just don’t want it to cost so much.

Tennessee -- despite what the name might make you think -- was born and raised in the Northeast. She most recently called Vermont home. For the last 15 years she's been making radio -- as a youth radio educator, documentary producer, and now reporter. Her work has aired on Reveal, The Heart, LatinoUSA, Across Women's Lives from PRI, and American RadioWorks. One of her ongoing creative projects is co-producing Wage/Working (a jukebox-based oral history project about workers and income inequality). When she's not reporting, Tennessee likes to go on exploratory running adventures with her mutt Murray.
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