Increasing student needs drive special education costs and staff shortage

Increasing student needs drive special education costs and staff shortage

Rising numbers of young children with severe behavioral, emotional and mental health needs and speech and language issues are driving up school district costs and worsening an already critical shortage of qualified staff and services.

That was the assessment of education leaders at three KASB workshops on the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act held in Topeka, Dodge City and Salina at the end of August.

Chip Slaven, Chief Advocacy Officers for the National School Boards Association, spoke at the workshops on NSBA’s push to update and fully fund IDEA. He said Congress is considering “reauthorizing” – a review that can lead to major changes in legislation – the IDEA for the first time since 2004.

Kansas Senator Pat Roberts, a member of the Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee, has publicly backed the goal of increasing federal funding from the current 16 percent to 40 percent of special education costs.

Special education leaders say increased funding would allow them to provide better services to students and families through better staffing and reduce the drain on other school programs.

Growing demands, especially at early ages

The number of Kansas students receiving services under IDEA, including those in private schools, is increasing rapidly, up 20.3 percent from 2001 to 2018, according to federal reports. That is four times the rate of increase in all students in Kansas public school districts. Special education leaders say the biggest reason is the growing identification of young children with special needs.

The number of three-to-five-year-olds receiving special education in Kansas increased by over 4,000, or 52.3 percent, since 2001. That helps explain the growth in total special education enrollment, because once students are identified, they usually remain in the system.

Educators agree that part of the growth is due to stronger efforts to identify students with special needs earlier. With more districts providing all-day kindergarten and preschool programs, more students are enrolled and those with special needs can be spotted. Districts are also expected to seek out high need students before they enroll in kindergarten.

The biggest challenges are growing numbers of students with aggressive behaviors, who can’t regulate themselves, can’t interact with other students and may be dangerous to themselves and others and destroy school property; and those lacking in speech and language skills.

What educators are not sure about is why those numbers are growing so fast.

One theory is that too many young parents either haven’t been taught appropriate skills to raise children or are too stretched or stressed by work or other obligations to provide the such care. Related is the suggestion that children who used to be raised by parents and grandparents are now in foster care, a system with substantial, well-documented problems.

A growing concern is “screen time;” that young children are given a phone or tablet to distract, occupy or amuse them at the expense of interaction with parents or peers, making them less prepared for interaction with other adults and children and less able to pay attention to a teacher. A classroom can put stress on children not used to being in a structured setting or struggling to meet higher academic goals before learning basics like socializing with others and toileting.

The high cost and limited availability of childcare is one reason many children have no experience outside their immediate home and family when they arrive at school, and lack language and social skills. Such students lag behind their peers from the beginning and often never catch up. As one school leader said, students can quickly “internalize” that they are “failures” and don’t believe they can learn.

The dwindling support for children and families from other providers, such as mental health providers, means problems become worse until the child arrives at school, which may be the only way a family can get assistance. As one special education administrator notes: “No matter how difficult the issues might be, the public school is the one place children can always legally go to.” Other providers don’t have to provide services without funding or can limit services to those who can pay. That leaves out many of the highest need cases – until the school steps in.

Rising toll on the staff and schools

School leaders say the growing demands on special education are straining programs that have long experienced a shortage of teachers. More students require more teachers. When they can’t be found, caseloads increase, leading to teacher frustration, burn-out and turnover. Parents are frustrated by the lack of consistency, which also hurts relationships between families and the school. Schools turn to using substitutes who may not have a full license and to paraprofessionals who don’t have training as teachers. Administrators say they do the best they can to meet student needs but could do better with better trained staff.

A study released last year by the Kansas Division of Legislative Post Audit found that school districts would need to hire an additional 700 special education teachers and 2,600 other licensed professionals like speech pathologists to meet “best practices” guidelines. If that were done, districts could cut between 1,700 and 3,900 paraprofessional positions, but would still require more funding because licensed staff earn significantly more than unlicensed paras.

In addition to better services, district leaders say they are urgently concerned about students – especially those at very young ages – who are dangers to themselves, other students and staff.  This may be due to uncontrolled anger, suicide and other self-harm, or potential violence against others like school shooting, each of which can be caused by depression, emotional disturbance or other mental illness.

To address these issues, schools are trying early identification, therapeutic preschools, one-on-one support, partnering with other agencies and providers and trying to build deeper relationships with student and families – all of which are promising but require personnel, training and funding. School leaders also acknowledge that other agencies, from community mental health to foster care, also face diminished resources and staff shortages, and may be in competition for the same people.

How more funding could help

When originally passed in 1975, Congress said it intended to cover 40 percent of special education costs required by the new law. Currently, federal funding only covers about 16 percent of costs. Kansas school districts receive over $100 million in federal aid for special education.

The state of Kansas also created a state aid program for special education, which according to state law should pay 92 percent of the “excess cost” of special education (the cost of special education after subtracting the “regular” cost of educating students with disabilities and federal aid). However, state aid has also been consistently below that target, currently covering an estimated 78.2 percent. Local school districts must make up for what federal and state aid doesn’t cover.

Special education leaders say additional funding would not immediately solve the special education teacher shortage, but it would allow districts to raise teacher salaries to attract and retain new people over time. It could also help districts assist individuals in paying for college to become special education teachers, and work to provide more mental health services and more family outreach.

More special education funding would also reduce the need to shift money from regular education programs. For example, because the state special education aid program is only funded at 78 percent of excess cost, rather than 92 percent as provided in state law, districts must shift over $110 million statewide from general state aid to special education.

The percentage of excess cost is based on the statewide total of special education costs compared to total state appropriations for special education aid. However, the funding is distributed to individual districts based on transportation costs, the number of teacher and paraprofessionals, and funding for very high cost individual students. As a result, individual districts may receive more or less than the statewide percentage.

For more information:

KASB Report: Special Education By the Numbers

Kansas Legislative Post Audit Report: Evaluating Special Education Costs

National School Boards Association: IDEA Fact Sheet