(3TV/CBS 5)-- Federally mandated special education services are underfunded. With more students having more severe disabilities, there is a growing strain on general classroom spending in Arizona's public schools.
Now, Arizona lawmakers are considering a bill that would help public schools manage the rising cost of special education services.
“The time is now,” said Arizona state senator Sylvia Allen, who is introducing a bill that would increase funding for about 100,000 special education students statewide.
“I am very glad to be a part of this and be the voice to say, ‘OK senators and representatives now is the day, we can’t go any longer’.”
It’s been about 20 years since special education funding has been addressed. In that time, Dr. Kym Marshall, Director of Student Services for Chandler Unified School District says the special education population has exploded and so have the needs.
“It’s not just about reading writing and math, it’s more about mental health, social emotional,” said Marshall. “When you include the special designed instruction from the special ed teacher, the speech pathologist, occupational therapist, possible paraprofessional support, right, it all adds up and the district has to fund it. It is a federal mandate so if the student needs it then we have to provide it.”
That means dipping into the school’s general fund because, right now, students who fall into one of the six categories only get $12 more than any typically performing student.
These are the following six categories of special education:
--OHI – Other Health Impaired
--DD – Developmentally Delayed
--ED – Emotional Disabilities
--MIID – Mild Intellectual Disabilities
--SLI – Speech and Language Impairments
--SLD – Specific Learning Disabilities
“We took 18 students, varying levels of disabilities and supports and services and looked at what that cost the district and just with those 18 students we were in the red just over 327,000 dollars,” said Marshall.
The Chandler Unified School District has more than 5,300 special education students.“We normally grow about 100 students a year and this past year October 1, 2018 to October 1, 2019 we saw an increase of 225 students already," Marshall added.
The last time special education costs were studied was 2007, when it was required by law. At that time, there was a $98 million funding gap.
Arizona law no longer requires or funds such studies, so the current gap is anyone's guess.
What we do know is that the population keeps growing without any additional funding.
Between the 2007 to 20017 school years, the number of Arizona students diagnosed with autism more than doubled and from 2008 to 2014, the rate of newborns exposed to narcotics shot-up an alarming 218%.
“When you have students that have been drug exposed that changes the makeup of their brain and their structures,” said Marshall.
“There are just too many children who fall into these classifications that haven’t been true in the past,” said Sen. Allen. “I don’t know all the reasons and I guess it doesn’t matter for this argument. We have the issue now let’s try to help these kids.”
Allen is introducing Senate Bill 1060. “1060 is asking for a $50 million appropriation which adds $500 to these formulas which will so benefit our schools,” said Allen.
It also creates the “extraordinary special education needs fund”
“Sometimes they are not able to stay in the public school setting they need extreme and intensive supports in order to give them the skills to come back,” said Marshall.
This would help public schools seek reimbursement for those placements which can run more than $50,000 or more per student.
Students and educators are hopeful this bill passes. “I think it is a definite move in the right direction,” said Marshall.
Senate Bill 1060 will be discussed in the Senate Education Committee January 21st.
Even if this bill passes, Arizona is struggling with a teacher shortage that's even more dire for special education, because those positions remain some of the toughest to recruit and retain.
“Some reasons why they leave is the aggressive behaviors they are seeing, the increased paperwork and the litigiousness of being a special education teacher,” said Marshall.
Additionally, a strong economy and increased minimum wage is making it difficult for schools to find and keep professionals that are so critical to special needs students.
“With a good economy you can go work at Chick-fil-A and make just as much money without working in the schools,” said Marshall. “We could not do our jobs without para professionals. They are our lifeline and truly our teaching partners.”
Educators remain hopeful that the teacher crisis will also be addressed this session.