Kansas school leaders urge lawmakers to fully fund special education services – The Lawrence Times | Team Cansler

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The state has failed to meet special education funding requirements since 2011, leaving school districts to divert millions from other services

TOPEKA — 6-year-old Crosby Orlando is finding it difficult to stay in his first grade classroom.

He was born with Down Syndrome and has been in therapy to work on behavioral and communication barriers since he was four weeks old. Orlando is mostly non-verbal and uses signs to communicate with classmates, although he gets restless and wants to walk around. At one point, he even escaped from his Shawnee Mission School.

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His mother, Sara Jahnke, said she used to struggle with guilt over the amount of resources Orlando required as a child with additional needs in a classroom. Jahnke said she then realized how beneficial it was to be in a classroom, both for him and for his classmates.

Sherman Smith/Kansas reflector Crosby Orlando, 6

“They know he’s different and they learn to love him because of those differences,” Jahnke said. “Being Crosby in the classroom is fantastic. It pushes him to do better, to learn, to grow. But it also teaches his classmates a lesson in compassion and acceptance.”

Orlando is one of thousands of children in Kansas — one in six public school students — who receive special education. But school districts have been forced to shoulder the burden of paying for special education services that are underfunded by the Kansas legislature. Advocates say there is an urgent need for more money to support special education services, and the state has the financial capacity to make the investment.

Kansas law requires the state to cover 92% of additional costs for special education, but lawmakers have not met the requirement since 2011, according to the Kansas Association of School Boards. KASB said the current funding level is 71% statewide and districts must divert funds from general education programs to meet the cost of special education. KASB estimates the funding gap at around $160 million.

Anjanette Tolman speaks during a press conference at the Statehouse
Anjanette Tolman, executive director of special services for Olathe Public Schools, says the state has allocated only 54% of the funds needed for special education in the district. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

KASB held a news conference Thursday at the Statehouse after a Legislative Committee hearing on special education funding to urge lawmakers to act immediately.

Olathe public schools have about 30,000 enrolled students, of whom more than 5,000 receive special education services, according to Anjanette Tolman, executive director of special services for Olathe schools. Tolman said the school district was only 54% funded last year and had to use more than $28 million from its general fund budget to make up the difference.

Tolman calculated that if special education were funded at the required level, the district could hire 350 additional certified employees, improve school programs, and increase school staff salaries.

Shawnee Mission Schools Superintendent Michelle Hubbard said her district is spending more than $8 million to fill the funding gap.

With Kansas boasting a record surplus of more than $2 billion, educators said there is no excuse for lawmakers not to fully fund special education.

“For the past several years, budgetary constraints have been the reason they haven’t,” said Shannon Kimball, president of the Lawrence School Board and chair of the KASB Legislative Committee. “You can’t budget it now, so they’re now looking for other excuses not to fund it. The state has enough money to meet these needs.”

Lawrence School Board President Shannon Kimball speaks into a microphone from behind a lectern during a news conference at the Statehouse
Lawrence School Board President Shannon Kimball is asking lawmakers to fund special education during a news conference November 10, 2022 at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Revenue estimates released this week called for an additional surplus of $800 million for the current fiscal year and $400 million for next year. Adam Proffitt, budget director for Gov. Laura Kelly, said Kelly will address special education funding in her January budget.

“Some other things that she has talked about is full funding for special education,” Proffitt said during an announcement Thursday of the state’s revenue forecast. “I’m not sure what that policy will be, but that’s something we’ll sit down and talk about later this month and early December.”

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Education advocates were not happy with Thursday’s special education hearing. Several advocates raised concerns about the statement by Kansas Policy Institute CEO Dave Trabert, saying he had manifestly misrepresented the need for special education. Trabert has been a longtime opponent of funding public schools at constitutionally required levels.

Trabert said school districts have not been impacted by the lack of government funding for special education.

“Our examination of the facts shows that there is no shortage of school funding for special or general education,” Trabert said in testimony for the committee. “Many students may not get the education they deserve, but it’s not because of lack of resources.”

Leah Fliter points during an interview at the Statehouse
Ken Lassman Leah Fliter of the Kansas Association of School Boards says lawmakers prefer inaccurate information to “actual experts.” (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Leah Fliter, KASB’s associate executive director for advocacy, said his testimony was inaccurate.

“There are groups that will pick dates and present them as facts,” she said in an interview after the hearing. “Meanwhile, they’re being portrayed as experts, and the actual experts who work for the Kansas State Department of Education — who are the real authorities on special education funding — are being questioned and belittled and pressured to say where they came from.” have their data.”

Kimball said lawmakers’ opposition to investment in special education was a deliberate attempt to avoid spending money on public education.

“I think their ultimate goal is to cut public funding in general, and they see that as an avenue to attack,” Kimball said.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith with questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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