Unanimous recommendation may run aground in GOP-led Legislature
TOPEKA — The Kansas State Board of Education voted unanimously to recommend Gov. Laura Kelly and the 2024 Legislature embrace a four-year initiative raising state aid to special education by $86.6 million annually to bring Kansas into compliance with the law.
The state board last year urged lawmakers to implement a five-year program that would have moved the state’s contribution to the required 92% in terms of extra spending by local districts to educate students with special-education needs. That recommendation was supported by the governor, but didn’t gain sufficient traction at the Capitol during the 2023 legislative session.
In the upcoming fiscal year, without changes approved by the Legislature and Kelly, the state would again provide 69% of special-education funding. The strategy adopted by the state Board of Education would move the state to the 92% level within four years by delivering a total of $346 million in new state aid to special education instruction.
Support among the 10 state Board of Education members at a Wednesday meeting reflected, in part, the state treasury’s fiscal year ending balance of $1.9 billion and deposits in the state’s separate rainy-day account of $1.5 billion.
“Right now, they’re not funding the law,” said state board chair Melanie Haas, with a district that included Blue Valley, Olathe, Shawnee Mission and Kansas City schools. “We certainly have the budget as a state right now to cover this. It’s time we caught up.”
Board member Jim Porter, who has responsibility for a 23-county district spreading out from southeast Kansas, made the motion to recommend the Democratic governor and the Republican-led Legislature tackle the funding shortfall in special education aid within four years.
It wasn’t fair to obligate local districts to fill the gap, he said, because those expenditures diverted resources in each district’s general fund.
“The special education students are not being cheated, but it very well could be to the detriment of everybody else,” Porter said. “It’s critical we make a strong statement.”
Board member Danny Zeck, a Leavenworth resident with a district extending to 16 counties in northeast Kansas, voted for the special-education funding recommendation. He did so despite suggesting local school districts were supercharging assessment programs with the goal of increasing the number of students labeled with some sort of educational disability.
He also said 30 years operating a car dealership taught him it was prudent to stockpile cash in anticipation of economic downturns.
“Cash is king,” Zeck said. “I don’t know anybody will disagree with that.”
Topeka state board member Ann Mah, with a district ranging from Wyandotte to Coffey counties, said Zeck misunderstood implications of making local districts responsible for unfunded costs of special education. She said there was no financial incentive for districts to draw more and more students into special education given the state’s failure to comply with the 92% standard.
In the 2011 fiscal year, the state covered 95.7% of additional special education costs incurred by local school districts. Generally, that percentage declined throughout the subsequent decade.
“You can see what’s been happening to that percentage over the years,” said Craig Neuenswander, deputy commissioner in the Kansas Department of Education. “It has declined primarily because costs increased each year and the increase in revenue has not kept up with one, inflation, and two, the need to provide additional services.”
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