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Budget Takes Baby Steps Toward Special Education Reform

Paul Warren July 11, 2019
Happy teacher with a group of kids in a preschool.

The new 2019–20 state budget recently signed by Governor Newson provides significant new funding for K–12 special education programs. It also makes substantial revisions to the state funding model for services to students with disabilities—and signals policymakers’ intent to make even more extensive changes in this policy area next year.

Passage of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) in 2013 generated questions about the fiscal and planning effects on local special education programs. Our work in this area (in 2016 and 2018) has found that district special education costs have risen much faster than state funding over the previous decade and has recommended several changes to make state funding more responsive to local costs. The new state budget includes two of our key recommendations:

  • Equalize special education funding. This year, $153 million was added to partially equalize per-pupil special education funding levels. Our report recommends equalizing local per-pupil funding rates up to the 90th percentile of current levels. Funding rates across Special Education Local Plan Areas (SELPAs) range from about $500 per pupil to more than $1,000. The new funding would bring the lowest local rate up to $557, which is about the 75th percentile of existing rates.
  • Fund early childhood special education. Another $493 million in this year’s budget will provide grants of about $9,000 for 3- and 4-year-olds who participate in special education preschool programs. State special education formulas fail to provide any state support for these children, and our reports conclude that the lack of funding could discourage districts from aggressively seeking children who could benefit from early services.

Because the new funding helps districts pay for their existing special education programs, these appropriations provide welcome fiscal relief. But the budget attaches a giant question mark to the long-term future of these new appropriations. Specifically, in 2020–21, the budget makes the two new grants conditional on broader special education reforms, and even holds out the possibility of revising those grants. Issues for further discussion include:

  • More changes to special education funding. Problems with the main special education funding formula were not addressed in this year’s budget. We have suggested the state peg annual budget increases to a better predictor of future costs, such as LCFF increases or past changes in special education costs.
  • Refining the role of SELPAs. We have also suggested giving districts greater leeway in determining how students with disabilities are educated, consistent with LCFF’s local control focus. SELPAs perform a wide range of services locally, including planning how students are served and supporting district special education programs that exhibit sub-par performance.
  • Improving local special education programs. The budget identifies two specific areas for attention: serving more students in their regular classroom (rather than in separate special education classes) and ensuring that student subgroups are not identified for special education in disproportionate numbers. By including this issue in the budget language, policymakers are signaling they want faster progress in these areas.
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