Task force asks Legislature for 4-year, $82.7 million annual spike in special education funding

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Proposal seeks to bring Kansas aid to special education in line with 2005 law

TOPEKA — The task force created by the Kansas Legislature to resolve funding challenges in K-12 special education endorsed a four-year plan Friday adding $82.7 million annually in appropriations to local school districts to comply with a law requiring the state cover 92% of extra costs for serving gifted and disabled students.

Members of the task force opened the meeting by appointing Melanie Haas, the Overland Park chairwoman of the Kansas State Board of Education, to lead the group of five legislators and six non-legislators. The leadership decision meant Republican Rep. Kristey Williams of August had to relinquish her grip on the task force.

The task force then chose Democratic Rep. Valdenia Winn of Kansas City, Kansas, to serve as the task force’s vice chair. Winn had nominated Haas to the top leadership post.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican who voted against Haas’ appointment, said she was concerned the Kansas Open Meetings Act had been violated. She asserted members of the task force engaged in behind-the-scene negotiations to lay groundwork for election of Haas and Winn. She said members’ conversations about chair and vice chair ought to have transpired in public at the Capitol.

“KOMA includes not just emails to the entire group and agreements being made on emails, but it does include serial phone calls and polling of committee members. And, I think, that that has occurred with this task force even before we had our first meeting,” Baumgardner said.

Baumgardner questioned legality of exchanges several months ago when task force members solicited signatures for a letter to Williams demanding she call the first meeting of the task force. Williams relented three months later, permitting a two-hour meeting of the Special Education and Related Services Funding Task Force. She scheduled it for the final business day before opening the 2024 Legislature on Monday.

Haas: ‘It was not’

Haas said Baumgardner was wrong to allege violations of KOMA. Haas said Williams sought to derail the task force by not scheduling the meeting, because Williams concluded she wouldn’t have votes to be picked chairwoman. The initial meeting came about because a majority of the task force was committed to working on funding special education programs, Haas said.

“I would like to rebut your suggestion that the Open Meetings Act was violated. It was not,” Haas said.

Haas, who represents the Blue Valley, Olathe, Shawnee Mission and Kansas City school districts on the state Board of Education, said the task force would comply with the Legislature’s directive to report findings by Jan. 14.

A majority of task force members expressed interest in continuing to meet in hopes of responding to a collection of complex questions about special education financing. Williams said many of those issues had been thoroughly examined by GOP-led legislative committees in the past two years. She invited fellow task force members to go back and review relative House and Senate video and written testimony.

“I think the discussion today is about recommendations and next steps,” Haas said. “During my time on the state board we have attempted to work across the street with the Legislature and I will admit that we haven’t been great at that. We haven’t collaborated in the way that … I personally have always hoped that we could. I’m hoping this can be a very bipartisan effort to really focus on special education students in Kansas, special education teachers in Kansas and all the families that are impacted by these services.”

The task force did vote to recommend the Legislature approve the state Board of Education’s plan to attain the 92% funding level within four years, which would relieve local school districts of about $173 million annually in special education costs not covered by the state.

Currently, districts receive state reimbursement for an average of 69% of expenditures on special education. Districts must transfer cash from general operating budgets and reserve accounts to cover the gap.

Clash of ideas

The four Republican legislators on the task force opposed the motion to embrace the state Board of Education’s strategy.

However, an overwhelming majority of education organizations, teachers, administrators and others who testified at the hearing asked the task force and Legislature to comply with law promising districts 92% of excess costs incurred for teaching special education. The standard was inserted into Kansas statute in 2005, but the figure had been an informal goal of the Legislature and state Board of Education since the 1990s. Kansas hasn’t hit the mark since 2011.

“Great things are happening with Kansas public schools, but one of the biggest challenges our districts face in supporting student achievement is chronic underfunding of special education,” said Leah Fliter, a lobbyist with Kansas Association of School Boards. “We ask the Legislature, which has the power of the purse, to allocate those funds. There’s widespread political support for this action.”

Monica Brown, a special education teacher in the Gardner-Edgerton school district, said when government meets the “needs of all those we claim to want to support, everyone benefits. But individualization and inclusion require funding. Best practices take investment and sacrifice from our state budget.”

Debate in Kansas about special education funding was tangled in misperception, said Dave Trabert, who serves as CEO of the Kansas Policy Institute. He said existing state methods and formulas didn’t fully account for tax dollars devoted to special education. Some Kansas districts receive more than 92%, while others get less.

“If it is all counted, then special education is overfunded,” he said. “We would suggest you fix the formula that distributes the money because, as we’ve mentioned, some 135 districts actually got more than 92% last school year. We also suggest that you fix the formula so that all of the money related to special education is counted.”

Members of the task force rejected the idea of requesting the Legislature leave unchanged until 2027 the formula relied upon to allocate special education aid to districts serving about 500,000 students in Kansas. Eighteen percent of Kansas’ public school students, or 91,000, take part in special education programs.

In the current fiscal year, Kansas provides $528 million in state aid to special education. That covers 69.3% of expenditures by local school districts, which left a shortfall of $173 million. The Kansas Department of Education estimated the state would reimburse districts for 66% of excess costs in the upcoming fiscal year or $206 million less than what was required to comply with the 92% metric.

The task force concurred with Baumgardner’s suggestion to revamp administration of state aid so dollars flowed to districts in the same academic year in which the expenditures were incurred. Under the current system, districts might wait more than three months into the next school year to get full payment.

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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