Education advocate: Kansas school finance bill would ‘permanently underfund’ special education

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TOPEKA — Kansas lawmakers are trying to overhaul special education funding for public schools in a move condemned by public school advocates. 

The latest version of Senate Bill 387, a budget bill that will govern state education funding for the next three years, would change the state’s special education funding formula.

Leah Fliter, assistant executive director of advocacy with the Kansas Association of School Boards, said the proposal was unacceptable. 

“It fundamentally rewrites the special education formula to permanently underfund our schools on the special education front,” Fliter said. 

Money for special education goes toward educational needs for gifted and disabled students in Kansas public schools. Statute dictates that state funding cover 92% of the extra cost of providing services to K-12 special education students statewide, but with no enforcement mechanism, the state hasn’t met this requirement since 2011.

Kansas currently covers approximately 69% of expenditures by local school districts, leaving Kansas schools to pick up the tab for the rest of the costs. 

Approximately 18% of Kansas students used special ed services in the 2022-2023 school year, and with costs and enrollment rising, districts say the issue has become urgent. A January task force dedicated to examining K-12 special education needs recommended a four-year plan adding $82 million annually in appropriations to local school districts

SB3 87, a proposal that is rapidly changing as lawmakers work to finalize bills before the Legislature adjourns Friday, includes $75 million for Special Education Services Aid in fiscal year 2025. In fiscal year 2026, the bill claims to appropriate $610.5 million for Special Education State Aid — but it will use a new system to determine each district’s aid, a system Filter deems problematic. 

The special education formula currently factors in costs of providing services, costs of regular education and federal aid. The proposed formula uses what Filter characterizes as faulty math, including factors such as Medicaid and state hospital funding, along with district-level budgets to determine special education aid. 

“When you use the false calculation that’s in SB 387, it will claim to show that the legislature is now funding 99% of excess costs for special education,” Fliter said. “And so that will allow them to say next year and in the future that we don’t have to give you any more special ed funding.” 

During a Tuesday conference committee for Senate and House lawmakers tasked with shaping the policy, Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, stressed the committee was still in the initial phases of working the bill.

“I can’t control what goes out on social media, but the sky is not falling,” Baumgardner said. 

The proposed legislation comes at a time when public schools are especially vulnerable. In February, the Kansas Supreme Court withdrew its years-long oversight of state school finance, handing the matter back to a Legislature known for underfunding public schools. 

The court had previously retained jurisdiction of the Gannon v. State case, which mandated school funding requirements be met, to ensure lawmakers kept passing constitutionally required funding increases. Lawmakers passed a plan in 2019 to gradually increase funding, until reaching a constitutional amount in the 2023 school year. 

That marked the first time Kansas schools had been fully funded since 2008.

Justices stopped monitoring the case because the mandated levels of school funding had been met, but education advocates now worry about the lack of oversight. Because the case is now closed, if the Legislature passes a budget underfunding schools, Kansas districts can’t go to the Supreme Court for intervention. They will have to start a new legal process. 

“The Legislature didn’t want to provide the funding,” Fliter said. “They were finally told by the Kansas Supreme Court that they had to. Ever since then, they’ve kind of held a grudge about funding. They’ve been forced to do the Gannon funding, and some in leadership seem to feel like that’s all they should have to provide. And they’re going to do that grudgingly, unfortunately.” 

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: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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