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The Unforeseen Costs Of Freezing Special Education Funds

On the list of recommendations to reduce Wyoming’s education budget deficit is a cap on special education funding. That means moving forward, districts that need to spend more than their allocated budget will need to cover those additional costs on their own.

Mike Harris, special education director for Fremont School District #1 said it’s hard to predict the needs of special education students. New kids move into districts and issues emerge for currently enrolled students, and those kid must receive certain services. He’s worried this bill might limit the ability for schools to provide those services.

“We would be, in the back of our minds, thinking, do I have enough to cover this student's needs, and the next student who comes in, and the third student.”

Harris said, in his district, “we’ve had a steady increase in our enrollment and new kids with disabilities who’ve come in. And we have had to hire people mid-year and seek out new service providers.”

Districts don’t have a choice in the matter. They are required by The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to provide free and appropriate public education to all students. That also means maintaining a consistent level of funding. If a district’s budget for special education dips, that puts them in danger of losing federal dollars the next year.

But Harris said that wasn’t something he worried about until now.

“Wyoming is the only state that placed enough of an emphasis on this population to fully fund this population.” He said, “We will not have a fiscal excuse to not do what this law requires.”

He explained that in other states districts are already expected to cover some of the costs. But he pointed out, “There are all kinds of problems in other states because of budgetary shortfalls.”

In Wyoming, the state reimburses districts for unanticipated special education costs. But that could change with this bill and Harris is worried that might put Wyoming’s good reputation in jeopardy. His first concern is that fewer resources would lead to poor outcomes for students and with that might come an increase in parent complaints and costly litigation.

Phil Moses directs the Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education. Part of what his organization does is track how states handle complaints. He said Wyoming is currently just below the national average.  

“Wyoming is not an outlier. It does not have very high rates of dispute resolution activity.” But Moses added, “Nor does it have low rates of dispute resolution activity.”  

Moses suggested one way to weather budgetary shortfalls and to avoid conflict is to keep parents involved in the conversation.

“Typically when parents and school systems work well together, and have strong relationships, we see much lower rates of formal dispute resolution activity and litigation,” said Moses.

He says those practices are already in play in several districts in Wyoming.

Terri Dawson has been working for 26 years to connect families of children with disabilities to schools and resources. She currently directs the Parent Information Center, and she thinks a special education spending freeze is a mistake.

“We know that if we provide stronger early intervention programs and support to kids that they are going to do better down the road and they might even exit special education,” said Dawson. “Once you’ve caught them up they might move on through school and through adulthood with no problems.”

Dawson pointed to her own 31-year-old son, who has Down syndrome, as an example of the broader impact special education can have.

“He works a fulltime job. He lives in his own home. And he is a tax paying citizen.”

The special education services he received in Wyoming schools, Dawson said, helped her son stay off disability as an adult.

Dawson and Harris both acknowledged the challenges faced by legislators trying to reduce a $400 million deficit, but from their perspective a strong investment in special education benefits kids and may actually save the state money overall.

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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