Credit: Andrew Reed / EdSource
A special education teacher walks down a hallway with her student in a Northern California school.

California’s method of funding special education will become streamlined and a little more equitable, thanks to a provision in the recently passed state budget.

The 2020-21 budget fixes a decades-old quirk in the funding formula that had left vast differences between school districts in how much money schools received to educate special education students.

The old formula, created in the late 1970s and last updated in the early 2000s, based funding on how many students a district had overall, not just its number of students in special education. The result was that some districts received up to $800 extra per student per year to educate students in special education, while others received as little as $500.

The new formula adjusts some of those criteria, and brings districts at the lower end up to the state average of $625 per student per year. Districts that previously were receiving more will still get that same amount annually, so they won’t be penalized. To make up the difference, the state will be spending an additional $550 million on special education, plus an additional $100 million set aside for students with costly disabilities, such as genetic disorders that require specialized services.

“This is a very significant increase in special education funding. It’s the culmination of many years’ work,” said David Toston, associate superintendent of the El Dorado County Office of Education and chair of the California Advisory Commission on Special Education. “Considering the economy, we were bracing for the worst. I was very surprised and appreciative the (Newsom) administration was able to follow through on its commitment.”

The budget also includes funding to fix other wrinkles in California’s special education policy. It creates several workgroups to address key areas, such as alternative diploma pathways for students with disabilities. It also will address the sometimes-rocky transitions children make when they move to schools from regional disability centers, which provide programs for infants and toddlers, as well as from school to the California Department of Rehabilitation, which provides independent living and employment services for adults with disabilities.

It also sets aside $15 million to recruit and train special education teachers.

The new funding is part of a broader, multi-year state effort to tackle some long-standing hurdles to how schools provide special education, said Jason Willis, area director of strategic resource planning and implementation at WestEd, a research and technical assistance firm.

“California is trying to think about this holistically,” he said. “But right now, for administrators, this will offer a little relief, especially in an environment where the economy is struggling.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has dyslexia, has long championed special education. In his May speech about his proposed budget revisions, he said the additional special education funding will be renewed annually.

“I care deeply about special education, and I could not in good conscience be part of dismantling of a commitment we had made well over a year ago to substantially improve special education in the state of California,” he said. “Nothing breaks my heart more than seeing people with physical and emotional disabilities, people so often left behind and forgotten, falling even further behind.”

He also acknowledged that the state has more work to do.

“We are not even close to where we need to be in terms of protecting those folks,” he said.

Carolynne Beno, a former director for the Yolo County Special Education Local Plan Area and an education lecturer at UC Davis, agreed that the additional funding is a good start, but not nearly enough to address schools’ growing needs.

She pointed out that while overall enrollment is declining in California, the number of children in special education is growing. In 2018-19, almost 800,000 California students — about 13% of overall K-12 enrollment — were enrolled in special education, receiving services for dyslexia, autism, emotional disorders, cerebral palsy and other conditions.

Schools are also seeing an increase in students with disabilities that are costly to address, such as severe autism, she said. And staffing shortages are forcing districts to hire outside workers, such as speech therapists and psychologists, which also adds to expenses.

“Consequently, despite the increased funding in the budget, students with disabilities and their families probably won’t see significant differences in the services they receive,” she said. “We need to remain committed to (making funding more equitable), funding for preschoolers with disabilities and additional funding for students with the most needs.”

She also noted that most families might not notice a difference in services because districts try to provide a full range of services regardless of how much money they receive from the state.

Special education funding in California has been a challenge for decades. When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act passed in 1975, mandating that schools provide a free, appropriate education to all children, the federal government agreed to fund 40% of states’ special education costs. But federal spending has never reached that level, and in recent years has provided only about 15% of California’s costs. The remainder is covered by the state and local districts.

As the state navigates economic uncertainties caused by the pandemic, advocates for special education say they’re heartened that so far, programs for students with disabilities have been spared.

“It’s clear that this administration is making special education finance reforms a priority,” Willis, from WestEd, said. “That’s significant, especially as we’re walking into a recession.

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  1. Todd Maddison 2 months ago2 months ago

    The issues around special ed funding are a good example of how we often fail to understand that all funding in our schools is interconnected. As they say in finance, money is “fungible”, meaning if I give you $10 to buy lunch and you put it in your bank account, it is then difficult to know if that $10 was actually spent on lunch, or on something else. When it comes to CA school funding, … Read More

    The issues around special ed funding are a good example of how we often fail to understand that all funding in our schools is interconnected. As they say in finance, money is “fungible”, meaning if I give you $10 to buy lunch and you put it in your bank account, it is then difficult to know if that $10 was actually spent on lunch, or on something else.

    When it comes to CA school funding, what we know, based on actual data is since we passed Prop 30 in 2012 school funding has literally skyrocketed.

    According to the state’s SACS database, in 2012 total school funding was $9,656/ADA. In 2019 that was $14,983/ADA. That’s an increase of $5,327/ADA during this time, growth of 55.17% with a 6.48% compound annual growth rate.

    During this same time, inflation in CA has averaged 2.37%/year, meaning school funding per ADA has risen at a rate almost 3 times faster than inflation.

    Where has this money gone?

    Not to special education, which has supposedly been recognized as a priority during this time.

    Last November Edsource highlighted a state audit that found money being allocated for high-needs students “has not ensured that funding is benefiting students as intended”.

    https://edsource.org/2019/state-audit-finds-education-money-not-serving-high-needs-students-calls-for-changes-in-funding-law/619504

    Now… “high needs” is not necessarily all special education, but do we really think if our districts are not spending money specifically allocated to high needs students in ways that benefit them, special education is being handled differently?

    In April 2019 the San Diego Union Tribune published a great study of special ed funding and it’s use in San Diego County districts. In their analysis, if we look at their numbers starting in 2012 also, we see that special ed funding has risen 26% (note they claim 32% in the text but that doesn’t match the math – going from $792M to $1B is a 26% increase…)

    https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/focus/story/2019-04-05/districts-struggle-with-rising-special-ed-costs

    If we look at education funding for only San Diego County schools, using the same CDE data we see funding for all SD County districts has risen from $8,383/ADA in 2012 to $12,068/ADA in 2019 – a 43.96% increase. A rate of 6.26% per year.

    It’s pretty obvious that if overall funding goes up 44% but special education funding only goes up 26%, the difference is being used elsewhere.

    Where?

    Most of education spending – typically over 80% and sometimes up to 90% in many districts – is on labor costs, pay and benefits for employees.

    Complete data for 2019 is not yet available for San Diego County, but if we use the public pay data available through Transparent California for 2012 through 2018, a longitudinal analysis of that data shows a compound annual growth rate for pay alone of 5.17%, and for pay and benefits 6.39%.

    That is, of course, even higher than the growth rate of total funding.

    So it’s pretty clear that schools have no problem prioritizing increases in their own pay and benefits- at rates actually greater than their increase in funding, again almost three times faster than inflation, but not prioritizing special education funding.

    And, before we hear “but they’re so underpaid, don’t they deserve higher raises?”, I need to point out that, again in San Diego county, in 2018 the total compensation for all full time employees of school districts was $94,907/year. For administrators that number is $156,214/year, for certificated staff $114,257/year.

    I think we’re long past the era where education was a calling that required a vow of poverty supported by a pantry full of Top Ramen packets.

    This is the real problem. It may have specific impact on special education as we see here, but it has general impact on everything we do in education.

    Again, in San Diego County, if pay and benefit increases had been held to the rate of inflation, there would be $1.3 billion dollars available for education there overall.

    We’ve heard much about the financial difficulties school districts were having even prior to the Covid crises. Again from the Union-Tribune, an article in February 2020 headlined “Nearly every San Diego County school district may be spending more than it can afford” details some of that distress.

    https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/education/story/2020-02-09/nearly-every-san-diego-county-school-district-is-spending-more-than-they-have-or-they-will-be

    Can we see why? It seems pretty obvious.

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 2 months ago2 months ago

      Todd, Thanks for your comment. I write not to argue but to clarify two points. By making your comparison starting with 2012, you are choosing the low point in funding during the last recession. Funding that year was down $9 billion from 2007-08. There had been substantial layoffs, and districts restored positions. See this graph; ignore the red -- the slide was prepared to make a separate point for another article I wrote. Second, special education … Read More

      Todd,

      Thanks for your comment. I write not to argue but to clarify two points.

      By making your comparison starting with 2012, you are choosing the low point in funding during the last recession. Funding that year was down $9 billion from 2007-08. There had been substantial layoffs, and districts restored positions. See this graph; ignore the red — the slide was prepared to make a separate point for another article I wrote.

      Second, special education students are entitled under federal and state laws to whatever funding is needed to provide them with a free and appropriate public education. That’s important to keep in mind when making comparisons between what is spent for other students. Courts have decided that the Legislature decides what is adequate funding, and that can change yearly based on their funding choices.

  2. Tim Morgan (personal viewpoint only) 2 months ago2 months ago

    Since when would removal of a windfall, only prospectively, constitute a penalty? Any reason to think Serrano v. Priest should not apply to state special ed funding?

  3. Bo Loney 2 months ago2 months ago

    Governor Newsom's story is inspiring. I've read a little about his journey and have loved watching his daily well researched briefings. I wonder if Edsource can have him for a podcast or article with questions about how the adversity of dyslexia ultimately strengthened his gifts and helps with his career? I would like to know his perspective and inner thoughts as a child while in school. I feel like he … Read More

    Governor Newsom’s story is inspiring. I’ve read a little about his journey and have loved watching his daily well researched briefings. I wonder if Edsource can have him for a podcast or article with questions about how the adversity of dyslexia ultimately strengthened his gifts and helps with his career?

    I would like to know his perspective and inner thoughts as a child while in school. I feel like he could give a voice to students with learning differences and would his could be uplifting story for all students facing the myriad of diverse hurdles and adversities.

    Replies

    • Demetrio 2 months ago2 months ago

      Newsome’s career was made possible by his rich patrons–the Getty family.

  4. Robert Bartlett 2 months ago2 months ago

    The coverage of financial issues regarding special education was really helpful. Over the past couple of years, it has seemed like special education services are operating in a climate of austerity, and this scarcity is leading to a lot of ethical breaches by school administrators who apparently see disabled children as adversaries. It's great to hear Governor Newsom depict special education services as important to the state. Of all the officials that I have worked … Read More

    The coverage of financial issues regarding special education was really helpful. Over the past couple of years, it has seemed like special education services are operating in a climate of austerity, and this scarcity is leading to a lot of ethical breaches by school administrators who apparently see disabled children as adversaries.

    It’s great to hear Governor Newsom depict special education services as important to the state. Of all the officials that I have worked with over the past 16 years as a highly-qualified California special education teacher, he is the first and only one to do so. If Governor Newsom actually knew the full extent of the intellectual bigotry operating in his state’s school system, he might be calling for an end to a human-rights crisis. It’s not just fine tuning that is needed. Children are being seriously neglected and even mistreated at every level of the system.