North Carolina’s inadequate, inequitable special education spending

As an advocate for students with disabilities in North Carolina, I’ve heard from countless students, parents, educators and concerned community members that such students aren’t being properly identified, evaluated, served and disciplined. I’ve sat with parents as they cried tears of sadness and frustration, desperately pleading for what’s best for their children. I’ve been approached by teachers who whisper about their demoralizing struggles with inadequate support and resources.

Data mirror these anecdotal experiences. SWD are significantly behind their nondisabled peers on all measures of school success. For example, during 2013-14, only 20.6 percent of such students were grade-level proficient on their end-of-grade and end-of-course exams, compared with 56.3 percent of all students. The four-year cohort graduation rate for SWD was 64.4 percent – 21.5 percentage points below the rate for nondisabled students. Students with disabilities were 13.2 percent of the total student population, but received 18.4 percent of full-day in-school suspensions, 21.6 percent of short-term suspensions, 16.7 percent of long-term suspensions, 18.9 percent of expulsions and 19.6 percent of disciplinary reassignments to alternative learning programs.

Students with disabilities may struggle in school for many reasons. For starters, it’s difficult to overcome the adverse educational effects of some disabilities. Other potential causes include the correlation between disability and poverty, rigid testing policies and practices, misallocation of resources, lack of staff training or effectiveness, or failures in service delivery. However, the biggest problem that plagues these students and the hard-working educators who serve them is inadequate and inequitable resources.

The state gives local school districts and charter schools a set amount of money per SWD in the district or school. In 2014-15, that amount was $3,926.97. However, state law also arbitrarily caps per student funding at 12.5 percent of the student population. The cap was established in the early 1980s amid panic after the passage of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as a way to limit expenditures and deter over-identification. Three decades later, it hasn’t changed.

The cap is unacceptably low and effectively penalizes districts with higher percentages of students with disabilities. In 2013-14, 13.2 percent of public school students statewide were identified as SWD. Eighty-two out of the 115 school districts were over the 12.5 percent cap. In 37 districts and 32 charter schools, students with disabilities were over 15 percent of the total student population. On April 1, 2014, Stokes County Schools had identified 1,136 SWD – approximately 20 percent of the total student population. Therefore, Stokes essentially didn’t receive any per-student state special education funding for about 506 students with disabilities.

Worse yet, the districts furthest over the cap are also disproportionately low-wealth counties and cannot adequately supplement state special education funding with local tax money or community-based services.

Regardless of the cap, the amount of funding that is provided per SWD is inadequate. The current per student amount may sound like a lot, but consider all that may be needed to provide an appropriate education to SWD: certified staff, specialists and one-on-one aides; modified instructional materials and assistive technology devices; classroom and testing accommodations; and/or special transportation and schools. Appropriately educating one student with disabilities can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Consider that last school year, districts received only $2,206.62 in federal funding per elementary school student with disabilities and $1,518.04 for each middle and high school student. And consider that many other states provide significantly more funding for SWD.

Troublingly, this resource starvation may deter identifying and serving all eligible students. If such students are not served appropriately, they are more likely to fail academically and misbehave, and ultimately to drop out or not graduate with the necessary knowledge and skills to thrive in adulthood and contribute to their communities.

The special education funding crisis has become even more dire in recent years, as North Carolina plummets toward the bottom of states in base per-pupil expenditure; as austerity and privatization cause Medicaid services for SWD to crumble, leaving public schools to pick up the pieces; and as some charter schools find ways to serve relatively few students with disabilities, leaving traditional public schools with the same per-pupil special education funding but a disproportionate share of the students who have more costly needs.

Finally, the funding amount and cap are causing districts to violate federal and state laws that require them to provide SWD with appropriate, individualized special education and related services.

To improve services and outcomes, to make the jobs of educators easier and to enable districts to comply with federal and state laws, the General Assembly should immediately lift the cap on special education funding, reform the special education funding formula and increase funding for special education.

Jason Langberg is an education justice advocate and on the advisory board of the Youth Justice Project of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.