Kansas School Leaders Urge Lawmakers to Fully Fund Special Education Services
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TOPEKA – Staying in his first-grade classroom is a challenge for 6-year-old Crosby Orlando.
Crosby, who was born with Down syndrome, has been receiving therapy since he was four weeks old to address his behavioral and communication difficulties. He is mostly nonverbal and uses signs to communicate with his classmates, but he often becomes restless and desires to run around. On one occasion, he even managed to escape from his Shawnee Mission school.
Sara Jahnke, Crosby’s mother, used to struggle with guilt over the amount of resources her child required as a student with special needs in a classroom setting. However, she eventually realized the benefits of having him in a classroom not only for him but also for his classmates.
"They recognize that he is different, and they learn to appreciate his uniqueness," Jahnke explained. "Having Crosby in the classroom is fantastic. It motivates him to improve, learn, and grow. Moreover, it also teaches his classmates a lesson in compassion and acceptance."
Crosby Orlando is just one of the thousands of Kansas children, comprising one in six public school students, who receive special education services. Unfortunately, school districts have been burdened with the responsibility of funding special education services that are inadequately supported by the Kansas Legislature. Advocates are urging for increased funding to adequately support special education services, asserting that the state is financially capable of making that investment.
According to the Kansas Association of School Boards, Kansas law requires the state to cover 92% of the additional costs of special education. However, the Legislature has not met this requirement since 2011. Currently, the statewide funding level is at 71%, and districts have had to redirect funds from general education programs to cover the costs of special education. The estimated funding gap amounts to approximately $160 million.
To demand immediate action from lawmakers, the Kansas Association of School Boards held a press conference at the Statehouse following a legislative committee hearing on special education funding.
Anjanette Tolman, the executive director of special services for Olathe public schools, revealed that the district only received 54% of the required funding for special education services. As a result, the district had to allocate over $28 million from its general fund budget to bridge the gap. Tolman calculated that if special education were adequately funded, the district could hire an additional 350 certified staff members, enhance school programs, and increase salaries for school employees.
Michelle Hubbard, superintendent of Shawnee Mission schools, stated that her district had to allocate more than $8 million to cover the funding shortfall.
Given that Kansas currently possesses a record surplus exceeding $2 billion, educators argue that there is no excuse for lawmakers not to fully fund special education.
"In previous years, the budget situation was often cited as the reason for not fully funding special education," commented Shannon Kimball, president of the Lawrence school board and chairwoman of the KASB Legislative Committee. "Now, with the state having more than enough money to meet these needs, they are searching for other excuses. But there really aren’t any anymore."
Recent revenue estimates project an additional surplus of $800 million for the current fiscal year and $400 million for the following year. Governor Laura Kelly’s budget director, Adam Proffitt, confirmed that special education funding will be addressed in Kelly’s January budget proposal.
Trabert stated that school districts were not negatively affected by the absence of government funding for special education.
According to Trabert’s testimony to the committee, our analysis of the facts reveals that there is no inadequacy in school funding for both special education and general education. Trabert further emphasized that although some students may not be receiving the education they deserve, it is not due to a lack of funding.
Leah Fliter, an assistant executive director of advocacy at the Kansas Association of School Boards, disputed Trabert’s statements, claiming that they were inaccurate.
She expressed her frustration with certain groups who selectively choose data to present it as irrefutable fact. In contrast, she argued that the true experts who work for the Kansas State Department of Education, the actual authorities on special education funding, face skepticism, belittlement, and pressure to justify their data sources.
Kimball asserted that lawmakers’ resistance to investing in special education services stems from a deliberate intention to avoid allocating funds to public education as a whole.
It seems that their ultimate objective is to reduce public funding in general, and they view special education as one avenue to achieve this goal, as stated by Kimball.
Kansas Reflector, a member of States Newsroom, is a network of news bureaus financially supported by grants and a group of donors operating as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains its editorial independence. For inquiries, please contact Editor Sherman Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay updated with Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.
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