Our Lives

Our Lives: Wake County gets an ‘F’ in special education funding

CorrespondentMarch 8, 2014 

Diane E. Morris.

JULI LEONARD — jleonard@newsobserver.com

The stories of my life as a special needs parent are often emotional and personal. But there’s also a wonky side to my world, because I have to have some understanding of budgets and policies in order to effectively advocate for my two boys with autism.

Sometimes, what I learn shocks and saddens me. So please, bear with me as I get a little wonky for a moment.

Experts say educating a special education student costs, on average, 2.3 times as much as teaching a regular-education student. They say that’s the minimum funding schools need to provide basic educational resources to students with learning challenges, physical disabilities, and intellectual and developmental delays.

So Wake County received a base allotment from the state of about $5,000 for every student in the 2012-13 school year. Based on that 2.3 multiplier, the county should have received $11,500 for every special education student. Instead, it got about $8,700.

What does this funding gap mean for students? It means teachers often lack the resources they need to serve students who have disabilities. It means teacher assistants, who are esssential in special education classrooms, are underpaid and undertrained.

It means many parents have to fight to get services and accommodations to meet their youngsters’ educational needs. And students with learning disabilities are often unable to get the help they need to keep up in school, causing them to fall behind.

I have heard many stories of frustration from parents in my role as board president for Dynamic Community Charter School, a school for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities opening in August. Many are desperate for an alternative where they don’t have to do battle on a regular basis and where their children will have an opportunity to thrive.

But the funding gap affects charter schools, too, and it means DCCS has sizable financial hurdles to clear. State and local funding won’t cover the costs of the small classes and specialized services our students will need.

Unlike many charter schools, DCCS was started by parents, educators and concerned members of the community, rather than a company. We don’t have the financial backing of a large for-profit charter school – honestly, I can’t imagine any for-profit company taking on a clearly unprofitable mission like ours.

So yes, there is no question that finances are a challenge for the school. But there’s also no question of the tremendous need for such an alternative for Triangle students with special needs. The underfunding of schools hurts not only the opportunities for these students to get an education, but also their ability to learn the skills they need to live as independently as possible as adults. Every person I’ve spoken to about DCCS, even those who don’t support the proliferation of charter schools, recognizes the need for this school and its potential to change lives.

I believe the money and support we need will happen because I have faith in the importance of our mission and the generosity of our community. And that faith has brought us a long way already, with donations, helpers and waves of moral support. Wake County just isn’t the sort of place where people turn their backs on a good cause.

You can make an economic argument for investing in the education of students with disabilities – that helping them learn and develop now may reduce their need for public services as adults.

I prefer to make the moral argument. That we as a society believe in the value of every person. That we recognize that everyone has something to contribute and deserves the chance to have a fulfilling and purposeful life. That we want all people to be active and engaged members of their communities, regardless of the challenges they may have.

That’s why I launched the effort to start this school – so I could put those values into practice for my two sons and other youngsters in our county.

Every time I talk to special needs parents, they tell me how wonderful their children are. They are smart and funny and helpful and kind, but they are also struggling or stressed or falling behind. They just need a place where they can grow, where their strengths can flourish and they can get help with their challenges. Where they will have a chance to reach their potential.

I can’t imagine a better investment.

Morris: diane.e.morris@gmail.com

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