Kansas governor renews push to invest in special education services

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TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly renewed her emphasis on fully funding special education services in Kansas as she toured a Topeka school Tuesday.

Kansas law requires the state to provide at least 92% of the extra costs of special education, but the state has failed to do so since 2011. The Democratic governor’s proposed budget would add $72.4 million for special education funding every year for the next five years to meet the statutory requirement.

Republicans haven’t shown a willingness to send more money to public schools. The House last week adopted a resolution calling on the federal government to shore up special education funding, and passed a law that would create a task force to study the way schools use special education funding.

Kelly met with special needs students and their instructors as she visited classrooms at Jardine elementary and middle schools. She also participated in a panel discussion with educators and parents on the significance of special education funding.

“We can’t leave a single student behind,” Kelly said. “Every student deserves resources and support to succeed in the classroom. My budget puts Kansas on track to fully fund special education for the first time in over a decade. We owe it to our students to fully fund special education.”

The Jardine schools, which serve nearly 300 special education students, provide intensive instructional classroom services, structured teaching reinforced in a visual environment, behavior academic support services, speech services, gifted services, and a preschool intervention program.

School staff ushered the governor into various classrooms that provide those services, and a quiet room that provides sanctuary to kids with autism. Some of the students asked pointed questions.

Calvin Beck
Calvin Beck, a sixth grader at Jardine, confronts Gov. Laura Kelly to ask about teacher salaries. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

“Do you think you’ll ever raise salaries for teachers?” asked sixth-grader Calvin Beck.

Kelly told the boy she has worked to put money into schools since taking office.

“It’s up to the school board to decide if the teachers get a raise,” Kelly said. “So you need to take your question to the school board. I give them the money. They’re the ones who decide what to do with it.”

Another student bonded with the governor over their mutual joy for math.

“It’s just so fun to solve problems,” Kelly said.

During the panel discussion, Sarah Meyer, a parent of two students who receive special education services, said people often don’t think about how things that are simple for most people can be challenging for others.

“One of my children has a math learning difference, and so something as simple as counting money or learning time is not easy to understand,” Meyer said. “Those extra supports, those extra teachers in place, those small groups that have individualized learning, are so necessary to have those even very basic skills that we often take for granted.”

Sarah Meyer
Sarah Meyer, the mother of students who receive special education services, talks about the importance of those services during a panel discussion at Jardine. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

House Speaker Dan Hawkins addressed the topic in his weekly newsletter, where he pointed to the failure of the federal government to provide its share of special education funding. Legislation passed by Congress in 1990 promised to provide up to 40% of special education funding to state, but has only provided about 13%.

“One of the Governor’s talking points in her re-election campaign was fully funding special education, but can you imagine the good that could be done for our KS SPED departments if the federal government held up its end of the bargain?” Hawkins wrote.

Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, complained that “Democrats may not be so willing to put their money where their mouth is” because all but three of them opposed creation of a task force to study — but not fund — special education in Kansas schools. The task force, Hawkins said, would bring in “subject matter experts” to examine the way schools use special education funding “and evaluate what we need to do differently.”

“One would think that if you’re going to criticize SPED funding, you would want to be a part of the solution, but maybe that’s not the case for some,” Hawkins said.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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