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Others’ opinion: Paying the bill for exploding special ed costs

Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Of Minnesota’s 863,000 public school students, nearly 140,000 receive some special education assistance. Federal and state laws say students must receive services at school for various learning disabilities, developmental delays, behavioral and emotional disorders and most forms of autism. Kids with physical, vision, hearing or speech impairments are also eligible.

Providing those services can cost from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars over and above the state per-pupil allotment. State and federal government rules mandate the services, but cover only some of that cost, leaving districts to make up the rest. That cost gap, known as a cross subsidy, is expected to be $725 million this year. Metro-area examples include White Bear Lake Area Schools, which now devote $10.3 million to kids with special needs, and Minneapolis, which spends $55.3 million annually.

“Districts are taking ever-increasing amounts of money out of their general education funds to pay for special education costs,” Brad Lundell, executive director of Schools for Equity in Education, told a Star Tribune news reporter. “And that, I think, is reaching a crisis level in the state.” Lundell’s group represents 60 districts across Minnesota.

For years, educators and local legislators have pointed to the federal government as the culprit, because it has never paid the 40 percent share promised in the original legislation. Currently, about 8 percent of Minnesota’s $2.2 billion in special education expenses is covered by federal dollars. And though the state’s portion has increased to about 63 percent, that still hasn’t reduced the growing costs some districts must shoulder.

It’s important to continue to lobby the federal government to live up to its promise. In the meantime, however, the subsidy gap must be addressed.

Gov. Tim Walz, a former public school teacher who will present his first budget in a few weeks, has said he wants to boost education funding generally and special education in particular — especially for those districts that are bearing the highest costs. Yet he has not yet outlined how he would fund those increases.

Additional state funding would help, but anything short of taking over 80 percent to 100 percent of the costs could still leave some districts with cross-subsidy gaps. Special education spending has risen faster than incremental state increases in recent years. As with the exploding costs of health care, additional funding must be accompanied by containing or reducing costs.

A 2013 Legislative Auditor’s report offered some suggestions, including modifying laws that require districts to pay special education costs of students who choose to enroll outside their resident districts and revisiting state mandates that are stronger than federal rules. And this year, in the interest of greater efficiency, proposals are being floated at the Capitol to reduce the paperwork required of special ed teachers.

Some school officials say addressing the cross subsidy is a top 2019 legislative priority. Walz and the Legislature should have it near the top of their lists as well.