Federal government backs down from spending promise for special education

Saturday, January 3, 2009 | 4:58 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — At 9 p.m. Thursday, learning specialist Bill Bishop left work at Oakland Junior High School after finishing a four-hour tutoring session with two students. During regular school hours, he teaches in a portable classroom, working one-on-one with students who have severe behavioral problems and have been pulled from the regular classroom.

The opportunity to work directly with students is what triggered Bishop to switch to special education teaching after spending 12 years at the juvenile justice center, a job he said was more administrative than anything.

Public schools nationwide are required to provide special education services to all students who need them, according to the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. To help offset the costs, the federal government promised to fund 40 percent of the states' excess cost, which is determined by doubling the estimated national average cost of educating a student and paying 40 percent of the difference.

But since 1975, the federal government has failed to fund the whole 40 percent, instead providing up to half of that. Shortfalls are made up at the district level, forcing districts to rely more on state and local funds coming from taxes, said Dale Carlson, coordinator for special education administration for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The lowest amount given was 10.5 percent in 1981, and the highest amount given was 18.5 percent in 2005, according to the Department of Education and Congressional Research Service. Unlike Social Security, the 40 percent is not required to be paid by the government.

Although the federal government has slowly increased the amount of funds it gives for special education, it has also broadened the definition of a "child with a disability," therefore increasing the cost of services.

The term now includes children with mental retardation, hearing impairments (including deafness), speech or language impairments, visual impairments (including blindness), serious emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury and other health impairments or specific learning disabilities.

Columbia Public Schools is No. 4 on the list of Missouri school districts receiving the most special education funding from the state — almost $3.3 million. The Special School District of St. Louis County, which provides special education services for all districts in St. Louis County, receives the most — a little more than $30 million. Kansas City receives $5.2 million and Springfield R-XII also receives about $3.3 million.

Oakland Junior High School principal Kim Presko said that the majority of money spent on special education is for personnel and that the services students need are mostly instructional strategies.

"It might be smaller class sizes, longer time to take tests or getting read to," Presko said of the services provided.

Presko said she evaluates the amount of general and special education services needed for the school in March and gives the list to the district, which responds between April and July.

For the 2009-10 school year, the district faces a $3.2 million deficit. There is currently no plan that addresses the deficit, although the school board is debating possible solutions.

Despite varying budget scenarios, Presko said students will be taken care of.

"Everybody (will) still get services. They just may look different," she said.

The deficit is representative of the challenges many other districts face with the rising costs of education and a lack of funding from the federal government.

Five bills were recently introduced to the U.S. Congress to make the 40 percent funding mandatory, but they never made it out of committee discussion.

As for Bishop, he follows the "old-school" tradition of teaching without a lot of money.

"I'm making do with what I have," he said.

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Charles Dudley Jr January 3, 2009 | 5:17 p.m.

This is just so wrong on so many levels of dealing with "at risk disabled children" and their much needed education.

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