Special education funding in California is causing deficit in school district budgets

School districts are required by federal law to pay for a large portion of special education programs and services.  These programs and services cannot be altered or cut in any way because it is federally mandated, unlike all other programs for the rest of the students. The short explanation is that federal law mandates it, as set forth in the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act  [20 USC 1400 et seq.].  This law, also called IDEA, enumerates the required needs for students with disabilities.  We all agree that students with special needs must be accommodated, additional care is necessary.  However, most of us do not know the details of the funding and spending on this issue.   In addition to the IDEA federal mandate, the State of California also sets forth special education funding apportionment in its Assembly Bill 602 SELPA [AB 602].If you read these codes on its face and believe that the state and federal government will fund the programs as set forth in the requirements, then you’re not alone.  Must of us assume that this mandated federal and state law will come from separate federal and state funds.  Most people who I asked assumed that special education is funded entirely by federal government disability funds.  It does make sense since it is a federally mandated requirement.  The state and federal statutes require schools to provide “free and appropriate public education” for special education students.   Here is the shocking news, local school districts are responsible for this “free and appropriate public education.”  In fact, IDEA section 1400(c)(6) cites that states and local education agencies are responsible for providing the education for students with disabilities, but that the Federal Government will have a role [emphasis added] in assisting the state and local education agencies.  If you sample a school district’s budget, you will find for example [PVPUSD] it receives $5,049M from the state [AB 602] in addition to the federal IDEA grant which is approximately $2M.  However, the actual costs for the special education programs in this district total approximately $22M.  This district has reported a deficit spending for special education in the sum of $12.5M which is almost double the amount it receives in funding from the federal government and state, combined.  This school district has to find and fund $12.5M in excess of the sum provided by the government funding.  How could special education needs add up to such a colossal amount and cause such a deficit for local school districts? In the code, you will find that required programs such as one-on-one aids are mandatory for each qualifying special needs child. Transportation, specialized at-home care and a host of other services are also required under the law.  I asked the California Department of Education why local school districts are not receiving more funding for special education requirements.  I asked how the local special education funding from the state is apportioned.  Becky Robinson of the CDE Special Education Department stated that “all funds, federal or state, must be approved by the governor.”  I checked, she is right.  The Budget Act of 2008-2009 AB 1781 (chapter 268) sets forth the budget for special education as determined by the state budget and the governor. At a time when teachers and administrative staff are being laid off en masse, it is difficult to understand why school districts are forced to spend an additional $12.5M on special education program requirements, when state budget cuts are forcing school districts to cut teachers and programs elsewhere.  $12.5M could solve all of the local budget woes and keep the teaching and administrative staff employed for the benefit of the entire school.  The answer is that special education programs are depleting the school districts’ budgets as administrators make cuts to prioritize the federally mandated programs for special education.  Another item for budget in the statute that I should mention, is the special needs education conflict and dispute resolution.  There are law firms that specialize in representing students with disabilities and negotiate the settlement for district’s alleged failure to comply with the established statutes and regulations under the federally mandated IDEA.  This means that the statutes for special education inherently set forth guidelines for legal action following administrative proceedings should a parent identify a violation of their child’s “free and appropriate public education.” Many school districts have greatly suffered from lawsuits brought by parents who claim that their special needs child’s rights were not met under the code.  Case in point, Porter v. Board of Trustees of Manhattan Beach Unified School District et al., 307 F. 3d 1064 (9th Cir. 2002), 537 U.S. 1194, 123 S. Ct. 1303, 154 L. Ed. 2nd 1029 (2003). 

Bremen High School District 228

In the case of Porter, the parents of a student, who had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, charged that  Manhattan Beach Unified School District failed to provide their child with a “free appropriate public education.”   This lawsuit resulted in the school district paying over $6.7M to the family of the student.  In addition, as part of the settlement, control of the student’s education was transferred to a Special Master, Ivor Weiner, Ph.D., resulting in the cost of just under $1.1M to pay for the education of the student at the direction of the Special Master. 

The problem is that whether or not this school district properly complied with the federally mandated programs and services for this student, the school district was forced to make cuts elsewhere to pay for this legal settlement.   Why has the federal government mandated such broad standards for special education and then leave local school districts to oversee, manage and fund these programs? 

Since the subject of budgets and special education is not a topic that people are willing to discuss, reform in this regard is unlikely.  Certainly, special education programs and services are not to blame for this problem.  This problem belongs squarely on the lap of the federal government under the mandated IDEA laws.