‘Running on fumes’: Systematic underfunding of special education in the state of Kansas has created a dangerous problem, experts say

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This article was published on The Morning Sun by Jordan Meier on April 16, 2021.

PITTSBURG, Kan. — It’s usually early in the morning when Salli Chowning, the special education teacher at Northwest Elementary in Arma enters her classroom.  

She unlocks the door, turns on the light and takes a deep breath as she prepares for the day.  

She meets her paras, plans lessons for the day, drinks some coffee and then the bell rings and she is smothered with hugs by her students.  

“I knew as a middle schooler I would be a special ed teacher,” she said. “There is nothing better than the hugs and the reminders that you are doing a good job.”  

Chowning’s school days are jam-packed. She is on her feet all day until her last student is picked up.  

“I currently serve kindergarten all the way through fourth grade,” she said, “with 41 students on my caseload.”  

However, like most teachers, Chowning’s work does not end at the ring of the last bell.  

In addition to the planning and prep work of a normal teacher, Chowning—who has worked in special education for over 20 years and serves as the Southeast Kansas Interlocal Education Association president — spends her evenings as a fierce advocate for Special education. In particular, its lack of funding, that she says, in light of current bills passing through the Kansas state legislature, could get worse. 

“We have been in two or three years of running on fumes financially,” Chowning said, “to where if we now add school choice to that we will have some districts in southeast Kansas that will go bankrupt.” 

The underfunding of education is not a new tale for the State of Kansas, but the funding, or rather underfunding of special education, has largely been ignored or swept under the rug, advocates say. So what is special education? How is the state supposed to fund it and how do they actually fund it?  

What is special education?  

According to the U.S. Department of Education, special education refers to “specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability.”  

This instruction covers students with physical disabilities —including but not limited to hearing or sight impairment, health impairments, difficulties with speech/language and traumatic brain injuries — as well as those with mental disabilities— such as learning and intellectual disabilities, autism, and developmental delays.  

Chowning, who was born with a cleft lip and was a special education student herself when she was younger, said she cannot overstate just how important special education is.  

“I personally went into the field so I could have good connections with families and fix what at times I felt my mom was lacking,” she said.  

Rob Cummings, who runs an autism classroom at Pittsburg High School, said special ed not only teaches normal school subjects but practical life skills for some students.  

“Everyone deserves a chance,” he said. “Everyone deserves a chance to learn and has a right to an education whatever that looks like.”  

To receive these services, students must be evaluated by a school team, which includes parents. After it is determined what services and help the child needs, an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is created to outline the needs and goals of the child while also describing the special education services needed.  

 Once the need of the student is determined, a district can provide those services in one of three ways. The district can contract their own services, they can join a special education Cooperative, or they can partner with other surrounding districts to create an interlocal agreement. 

In southeast Kansas, special education services are provided through the last of the three, an interlocal.  

An interlocal is its own entity with its own board comprised of one school board member from each of the participating districts. It is identified as a district by the state, but it has no tax authority and does not technically enroll students.  

“We just provide services,” said SEK Interlocal #637 Director Greg Kubler. “We’re an all-people organization.”  

SEK Interlocal #637 services 13 districts mostly in Cherokee and Crawford counties including, USD #250 Pittsburg, USD #249 Frontenac, USD #246 Northeast, USD #499Columbus and USD #508 Baxter Springs.  

How Kansas is supposed to fund Special Education   

Special education funding in Kansas is a three-prong system with money coming from the federal government, the state government and local districts. 

Federal funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) — a version of which was first passed in 1975 and which was most recently reauthorized in 2004 — stipulates that states will receive funding at 40 percent of the National Average per Pupil Expenditure, or the average cost to educate an individual student.  

The Kansas Legislature then adds to the federal funding by allocating state funds for costs over and above the average cost of educating a student, also known as excess costs.   

Funding works through reimbursement rather than upfront funding and is supposed to cover the “excess costs” it takes to educate special education students compared to those students without special education needs. Kansas statute dictates that the state must fund 92 percent of those excess costs.  

The percentage of state funding can vary from entity to entity, though, depending on how many personnel work there. According to Deputy Commissioner of Fiscal & Administrative Services at the Kansas Department of Education Dr. S. Craig Neuenswander, the bulk of state funding to districts or interlocals for special education, known as categorical aid, is calculated based on a certain dollar amount per teacher.  

“So it’s really funding based on the number of teachers and paraprofessionals that you have rather than the number of students,” he said.  

After state and federal funding run out, the remainder of the special education costs falls on local districts. Ideally, that would only be the remaining eight percent of excess costs, but that usually isn’t the case. 

How Kansas really funds special education  

During the 2017-18 school year, according to data from the Kansas Association of Special Education Administrators (KASEA), 86,502 Kansas students were receiving some type of special education and those services received over $445.9 million in funding. With a price tag that big, it may be hard to see that more money is needed, but in reality, that money only covered 78.5 percent of excess costs—when statute says that 92 percent is supposed to be covered.  

“We’re asked to educate these individuals at a high level on a beer budget and a cheap beer at that,” said Cummings. “You know what I’m saying? We want a nice champagne and they’re giving us budget for PBR. They’re wanting magical things to happen on a minimal budget.” 

Since the 2015-16 school year, funding for special education has slowly been declining and by the 2021-22 school year the state will only be funding an average of 68 percent of excess costs for districts, KASEA data shows.   

“The burden is being taken on by a lot of people to get done what we are called to get done,” said USD 250 Superintendent Richard Proffitt, “because when you’re looking at special education, this is federally mandated. It’s not like we have a choice on whether we need to do that.” 

While laws and statutes outline clear funding requirements for special education, Neuenswander said they are more an ideal than a reality, with no real consequences for not meeting the required percentage.  

“There is a provision in the law that if there is not enough money appropriated, we prorate it,” he said, meaning it is adjusted for a specific time period and the amount of money available.  

The same goes for federal funding. Since its inception IDEA funding has never been at the required 40 percent and instead today sits at just 14 percent, according to Kubler. However, Kubler did note that in recent years, federal lawmakers have proposed legislation to fix the underfunding.  

“There’s basically a proposal in the Senate and House that is called the ‘Keep the PACT Act,’” Kubler said. “We’ll see where it goes, and it’s something that we’re certainly advocating and providing letters of support for because it would be a huge game-changer.”  

As the state and federal governments continue to underfund special education, districts are supposed to fund more and more. 

Kubler predicts that in the coming years the interlocal’s member districts could be responsible for over 30 percent of its funding, which in turn affects the district’s budget.  

“My concern is that if our funding is not addressed through the federal and/or state level that our reliance on those districts [will increase and] then at what point does a district have to say ‘I can’t, I can’t pay more,’” Kubler said. “We’ve never been at that point, but I fear at some point, that if we’re not addressing the problem at its root cause, that you’re putting more and more pressure on those districts to come up with those financial resources.”  

While Proffitt, who is superintendent of the largest funder of Interlocal 637, said the districts are happy to keep giving more, he emphasized that there are hard choices that have to be made when funding comes up short.  

“The reality is that choices have to be made, and decisions have to be made with the limited dollars that are provided,” he said. “There’s all kinds of things we would love to do in our district. We would love to add more social and emotional help. We would love to be able to add instructional technologies. We would love to add technology coaches. Those kinds of things that would have a tremendous benefit towards all of our students and all of our staff.  

“But when you don’t have all the dollars in place to take care of those needs, in some ways that means you go without. But also, when you have limited dollars and you have to go without, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the responsibilities of getting those things done isn’t still there. So now fewer people have to do more.”  

Chowning said she feels like the state is lucky the system has held up for as long as it has but added that she feels like it has been running on fumes for the last few years.  

“Everybody wants a raise; they want more money on benefits; they want opportunities to get more sick leave. They want all this stuff, but it takes money to get there,” she said. “We have one pot of money and within that one pot of money everybody gets a small little sliver, and that’s not going to change until we fully fund education.”  

But any teacher you talk to says they won’t let budget cuts or funding shortfalls keep them from giving their kids the best education possible. It just means they spend a little more out of their own money and they get creative.  

“We deal with what we have,” Chowning said, “and we’ve been doing that for many years.”  

Like most, special ed teachers spend some of their own money to stock their classrooms, but Rob Cummings took it a step further and has raised over $20,000 over the past three years for a state-of-the-art sensory room for his autistic students at Pittsburg High School. Local bar TJ Leland’s has lent its venue for bands to play fundraiser shows for the cause. 

“Local businesses, even outside of Pittsburg, donated items for our silent auction,” he said. “In just two years of fundraising, we raised almost 20 grand.”  

While Cummings is ecstatic about the money he has raised for his students and the support of the local community, he dreams of what could be done if they had adequate funding.  

“We have our basic needs met, don’t get me wrong, school districts and interlocal do a great job doing that,” Cumming said, “but being so underfunded, it’s hard to take it to that next level.”  

However, it is important to note that when looking only at the dollar amounts, funding has appeared to actually go up at the state level. In 2015, according to KASEA data, Kansas spent just over $434 million on special education, and by 2022 they are set to spend over $500 million.  

But if you look at the percentages in 2015, KASEA data shows the state was funding special education at an average of 80 percent, but by the 2022 school year, they will only be at an average of 68 percent.  

“Even though the amount has gone up,” Kubler said, “it hasn’t kept up with growth and need.” 

Current estimates by the Department of Education say special education in Kansas is underfunded by nearly $140 million, and there are no current plans to “close that gap”. 

“From an educators’ standpoint,” Proffitt said, “we understand what it takes to educate these kids. We understand the other things we need to make sure that we’re producing kids that are going to be productive members of society; and yet, it becomes more difficult all the time to supply those needs with limited funding that we have. 

“Money doesn’t grow on trees, we understand that. We understand that there’s a balance.”  

How some communities are more affected by decreased funding  

While the underfunding of special education is a problem in itself, possibly a bigger one is how this underfunding disproportionally affects some areas of the state compared to others.  

In southeast Kansas, the state only funds roughly 53 percent of the interlocal’s budget, but in areas like Wichita, Manhattan and Topeka, in past years that number has been much closer to the required 92 percent and in some cases over 100 percent.  

Since state funding for special education in Kansas is based on staff and not students, funding for districts is heavily reliant on their ability to attract and retain staff. But to attract more staff they have to have competitive salaries, which they can’t do without more funding.  

Kubler said the Interlocal hasn’t been able to increase its starting pay for paras for some time, which as of right now, depending on your level of education, stands at $9.80/hour, $10/hour, or $10.20/hour.  

“We have not been able to adjust that up for some time,” Kubler said, “so consequently it’s harder to attract and retain people into the field because there’s all kinds of competition out there for those folks.”  

This issue is not new and in fact, an audit of the Department of Education in 2017 revealed these inequities.  

An article from the Topeka Capital-Journal in 2017 revealed when the auditors examined 33 Kansas school districts their findings indicated that “categorical state aid for expenditures on special education varied widely.” The audit found that the range could be due to a district’s per-student cost of services, or salaries paid to special ed teachers.  

These revelations occurred in the wake of one of the state’s biggest lawsuits to date — the Gannon lawsuit.  

The Gannon case addressed inequitable underfunding in Kansas education generally, not specifically special education. The suit was a result of what plaintiffs called “inequitably and inadequately funded K-12 education” and as a result, the legislature pledged to add $90 million in funding to education each year — $7 million goes to special education — which was deemed constitutionally adequate by the state’s supreme court in 2019. 

While this case was meant to address the inequities in funding across the state, it is unclear if those inequities have been fixed as of the 2020-2021 school year.  

Looking to the future

While special education teachers and interlocals continue to deal with the challenges of COVID-19, as well as the challenges that come with underfunding, the Kansas Legislature is working on two major issues that could hit special education even more.  

Last week the legislature advanced what was at the time lawmakers called a “Frankenstein” bill, making sweeping changes to Kansas education including a provision that would expand what is called school choice and consequently see more state funding go to private schools.  

A Topeka Capital-Journal article reported that if signed into law the package would include a provision that would allow families to access the “per-pupil aid” that is normally given to public schools to support a student. A family could take that money and instead use it to pay for private school tuition, textbooks, tutoring, etc.  

“One of the things that is frustrating is that we are held accountable through the state department [of education] for all federal funding we receive,” Chowning said. “We have to show adequate yearly progress and we have reports we have to do to justify that. Private and parochial schools don’t need to do that. They don’t have the same accountability.”  

Additionally, Chowning said these changes have the potential to take even more money away from Kansas public school special education, saying the “wheel of funding” would be split into even smaller pieces.  

“It wouldn’t be a wheel anymore,” she said. “It would be a crash and burn.”  

In addition to the potential school choice changes, the legislature has also proposed what some education advocates say amounts to a nearly $500 million cut to education for the next fiscal year.  

“The legislators would not say they are proposing a half a billion-dollar cut,” Neuenswander said. “What they’re proposing is to remove state money and let districts use their federal ESSERS funds or CARES Act funds. They were very careful when they made that motion to point that out, that they’re not proposing to take that money away, just use a different source.”  

While the money wouldn’t disappear and would be supplemented by funds from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund (ESSERS) — money stipulated for education by the federal CARES Act — teachers are concerned because of the restrictions ESSERS money has placed on it.  

“Within those amounts, there’s a lot of limitations on what you can spend that money on and a lot of paperwork,” Chowning said, “and so we have money that we can only spend a certain way and then we’re also going to get a cut and be in deficit spending and so one hand isn’t feeding the other.”  

As the legislature continues to make decisions that have the potential to negatively impact education, and in particular special education, teachers like Chowning and Cummings are getting frustrated.  

“It’s almost like being stabbed in the side of my gut,” Chowning said. “It’s hard to finish my school day, make sure all the kids are safe, they’re home, they have their homework, that teaching happened today, and they learned something and we’re making adequate progress to prove that we deserve our funding, and then hear there were attacks on education.”  

Cummings had a similar sentiment.  

“We are underfunded and it’s time for something to happen,” he said, “and for our politicians to sit there and think they can continue to cut education and get these higher test scores and things like that that they want, they’re crazy. It’s never going to happen.”  

Jordan Meier is a staff writer for the Morning Sun. She can be reached at jmeier@morningsun.net