California’s record-high $78 billion school budget still leaves districts to pay for the bulk of special education costs, advocates say — and those costs have been on the rise for years.
A $200 million provision to equalize special education funding approved by both the state Senate and Assembly was not part of the final budget deal that landed on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk Friday.
Erika Hoffman, legislative advocate for the California School Boards Association, said advocates are still pushing for Assembly Bill 3136 as a policy bill, but that the funding provisions will not be part of the 2018-19 budget.
“The language in the bill would require the state superintendent (of schools) to compute an increased equalization adjustment but only when funds are made available through the budget process,” Hoffman said.
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In addition to equalizing special education funding rates to the 95th percentile, AB 3136 would also add money for students with greater needs as well as funding for special education preschools.
The budget proposal does include $100 million to increase and retain special education teachers, as well as $10 million more toward Special Education Local Plan Areas. And while the budget would also provide $167 million for more inclusive early education, Clovis Unified Legislative Analyst Steve Ward said that it misses how much extra manpower is needed to provide an adequate environment for students with special needs.
“The amount of money the state preschool provides is nowhere near enough to include special education students,” Ward said. “That’s not solving the problem.”
Without enough financing from the state or federal levels, finding money to pay for the rising costs of special education has increasingly fallen to individual districts, according to Ward. “In the past, a lot of these costs — therapies and services — fell to the county,” Ward said. “More and more, they’re our responsibility.”
Those costs include everything from developing specialty programs to having more professionals in the classroom.
There also is an increased need, Ward said, as special needs in children are diagnosed at a higher rate. A federal study found a 23 percent increase in autism diagnoses from 2008 to 2012.
A coalition of school districts in support of the bill found that statewide funding for special education had fallen from 41 percent in the 2005-06 school year to 29 percent in the 2015-16 school year. Contributions at the local level have risen from 48 percent to 62 percent in that time, according to the report.
Ward said advocates for the bill were disappointed that Gov. Brown did not include the $200 million funding allocation in the final budget.
“It’s a drop in the bucket of what’s needed, of course, but it would have started the process,” Ward said.
The bill will be heard Wednesday, June 20 in the Senate Education Committee, after which it would face a journey through the appropriations committee before landing on the governor’s desk. By that time, there could be a new face behind that desk, Ward noted.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom has indicated support for universal preschool, while Republican John Cox has rejected the idea of more spending on schools.
Special education funding is $145 million of Fresno Unified's $1 billion budget, or about 14.5 percent. At Clovis Unified, special education spending represents 16.5 percent of the district's general fund expenditures — about $75 million. Although state and federal grants are meant to pay up to 40 percent of these costs each, advocates say that's not the case.
"Federal grants have never come close to this commitment," Ward said. "For all of California, the Federal grant covers only 9% of the costs, the state 27%, and school districts pay the remaining 64% of the costs."
Facilities construction is another aspect of special education that’s paid for locally, through bond measures like Measure Q and Measure X, according to Alex Belanger, assistant superintendent for facilities at Fresno Unified.
Modern facilities are designed to integrate special education students with the general education population, as required by the least restrictive environment provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
“There have been decades of a different mindset about special education,” Belanger said. “Our mindset now is students with special needs should be included.”
Other considerations for special education facilities sometimes include adjacent bathrooms and sensory rooms, which are an additional cost, according to Belanger.
At Figarden Elementary, a $3.6 million classroom building that will house both special day and general education classes is in construction and set to open for the 2019-20 school year. The classrooms are arranged in a pod formation that’s connected by a collaborative hallway space. The school already has a building that houses both general education and autism kindergarten programs. The classes are next-door to each other and share a recess area.
The years-long design and construction process has frustrated some parents of special needs students, however, whose children end up in portable classrooms while new buildings are built.
“Over time, this is the product we’d like to have at all campuses,” Belanger said.
Collaborative space, along with kitchens, bathrooms and other facilities are all essential to delivering curriculum, but bond measures don’t cover the cost of educating, according to Fresno Unified’s assistant superintendent of special education, Brian Beck.
“It’s a demand on the general fund,” Beck said. “Anybody would tell you special education is underfunded.”