Study: Michigan special education is underfunded by $700M

Special education in Michigan schools is underfunded by nearly $700 million - a shortfall that leaves school districts with less money to educate their general education students.

That's according to a report from a special education task force subcommittee that was released Wednesday by Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, an advocate for special education students.

The $700 million is the difference between what it costs to educate special education students in Michigan and what the state spends to educate them.

Who makes up for the $700 million? That falls on the shoulders of all students in the state.

"Because special education services must be funded regardless of whether there is sufficient state or federal funding to cover the costs in their entirety, the dollars needed to cover the shortfall actually come from the general operating budgets of schools," the report says.

And that means a shortfall of $459 for every pupil in the state.

"In short, school districts must reduce the amount they spend on all students by $459 per pupil to cover the shortfall in special education funding," the report says.

The report concludes that Michigan's special education students need more resources to reach their full potential. It also recommends more training for teachers and the expansion of an early intervention program.

"Students with developmental disabilities and learning disabilities should have access to the specialized services they need to learn," said Calley, whose experience as the parent of a daughter with autism has fueled his advocacy in special education issues. "While we have a long way to go to give students with special needs the resources they deserve, I'm encouraged that we now have a road map to help us get there."

The report was put together by a subcommittee of Calley's Special Education Reform Task Force, which has issued broad recommendations for improving the special education system in Michigan. 

Earlier this week, the board of education for the Detroit Public Schools Community District adopted a legislative agenda that, in part, included advocating for greater state funding for special education. 

"Right now in Michigan, the state only reimburses 28% of the general revenue spent on special education," Nikolai Vitti, the superintendent of the district, told the board at a Monday meeting. 

Some of those recommendations, including prohibiting the use of seclusion and restraint in dealing with students — except for in emergency situations — have become law since they were suggested.

That subcommittee was asked to review funding models in other states and identify areas of priority that Michigan needs to invest in.

The amount of money the state spends on special education has declined 15.6% — from $238 million during the 2011-12 school year to $201 million in 2015-16, according to the report.

While enrollment has also been on the decline, the amount of funding has decreased far faster than the enrollment declines. For instance, Michigan had 197,788 special education students during the 2016-17 school year, down from 214,615 over a five-year period. That represents a 7.8% decline. 

Marcie Lipsitt, an outspoken advocate for special education students and parents, was among the 11 people who served on the subcommittee. She said she's pleased that one of her key issues - training for teachers - made it into the recommendations. Additional money won't matter if teachers aren't capable of effectively working with students, she said.

"It's recognizing that making substantial changes to our teacher preparation programs is critical to improving the outcomes of children with IEPs," Lipsitt said.

The report highlights why the funding matters:

  • Michigan's efforts to meet federal special education requirements has been identified as needing assistance for two or more consecutive years by the U.S. Department of Education. 
  • Educational outcomes for Michigan special education students "are lagging behind those of other states."
  • Special ed students are more than 20% more likely to have below average academic growth in English language arts and math.
  • 62% of students with individualized education programs (IEPs) were not proficient in reading at the 8th grade level; 82% were not proficient in math.
  •  55% of special education students graduate within four years, compared to nearly 80% for all students.
  • Students with disabilities score more than 200 points lower on the SAT than students without disabilities.

Meanwhile, the report identified seven areas of priority for investment. Among the recommendations:

  •  Expand Early On in Michigan services. Early On is a program that provides early intervention services to infants and toddlers with developmental delays and/or disabilities.
  • Provide financial incentives for pre-kindergarten and K-12 schools to implement best practices in special education services.
  • Increase support for community-based employment transition services for students starting at age 16.
  •  Increase support for professional development for teachers to prepare them to meet the needs of all students.
  • Reduce inequities based on ZIP code.
  • Provide schools with both the per-pupil grant the state provides for all children and an amount equal to 28% of a child's special education expenses. Currently, schools receive one or the other - depending on which is greater.
  • Fund regional family support service resource centers. 

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