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Special education is bigger priority at Capitol

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McKenzie Erickson
McKenzie Erickson, student body president at Southwest High School in Minneapolis, has dyslexia, and has been a special education student since third grade.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

McKenzie Erickson is a senior at Southwest High School in Minneapolis. She's the student body president, she takes advanced placement and international baccalaureate classes, and she plans to graduate this spring. Erickson also has a learning disability.

"I have severe dyslexia," Erickson told members of the Senate Education Budget Committee.

Erickson said her dyslexia was discovered when she was in third grade, and she's been a special education student ever since. She uses computer technology to help her read. Erickson told lawmakers she supports a bill that would increase state funding for special education. 

"I'm in the resource room every day, and there is a need," Erickson said. "There are a lot of students who know what they need, and they're not getting it, because there isn't enough money."

Senate sponsor
Sen. Sandy Rummel, a former White Bear Lake school board member, is sponsoring a bill that would boost special education funding.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

Erickson said she knows special education students who have dropped out of school because they weren't getting the services they needed. School district leaders say they want to provide a good education for special ed students, but they need help from the state. They'd also like more help from the federal government, but some are skeptical that will happen. 

When Congress first passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) more than 30 years ago, it pledged to cover 40 percent of special education costs. But the federal government has never paid more than 17 percent of those costs. Education groups say the funding gap for school districts widened four years ago, when Minnesota lawmakers capped special education funding during the state's budget crisis. 

"We don't agree on everything, but this is one thing that we agree on very strongly," said Vicki Roy, who chairs the Alliance for Student Achivement, a coalition of 16 education groups. 

The alliance backs a Senate bill that would remove the cap on special education funding, and give districts an inflationary increase for their special ed costs. It's not cheap -- the bill would cost close to $500 million over the next three years. Roy told lawmakers that while the price tag may be high, the bill would help every school district in the state.

"We have lots of ideas for increasing rigor and boosting achievement, as Gov. Pawlenty has suggested, but we can't move ahead with them until we fix the special education funding formula," said Roy.

Several superintendents told the Senate panel that without an increase in special ed funding, their districts will continue to make budget cuts. They said more than 10 percent of their students are special education students, and the cost of educating them is rising. The special education director for Northfield public schools, Gary Lewis, said the district's special ed funding gap has doubled since the state's budget crisis, and now equals the cost of 10 classroom teachers. 

Barbara Devlin
Richfield superintendent Barbara Devlin told the Senate committee that it costs districts nearly two times as much to educate a special education child compared to other students.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

"And suddenly, it wasn't 'there's a problem with special ed funding', the talk became, 'there's a problem with special education.' If this is allowed to continue, the next step is, 'The problem is those kids'. And that's a place we cannot go as a school district, as a state, as a society."

The Senate committee didn't take action on the bill, or several other special education bills, but will consider them as it puts together an education funding package. 

And it appears that special education is a higher spending priority for Senate Democrats than it was at the beginning of the session. During a news conference to respond to the state's budget forecast, Senate DFL leaders chose to focus on the issue of special ed. 

Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said capping special education funding during the state's budget crisis hurt every Minnesota school district. 

"This is not about funding special ed. Special ed is getting this money today," Pogemiller said. "Who's not getting the money? Class size reduction. High school reform. Everybody else isn't getting the money, because by mandate, special education gets the money."

Senate DFL leaders said they're not abandoning their push for more early childhood education funding. They say if the state increases special education spending, districts will have more money for all-day kindergarten and other programs. The issue of special education hasn't gotten nearly as much attention in the House, where DFL leaders have called for statewide all-day kindergarten.