Republican leaders are fast-tracking a landmark overhaul of the state’s current school funding formula.
More than 34,000 special education students in more than 100 school districts could see fewer funds directed toward their schools under House Bill 957, according to an analysis by the Clarion Ledger.
Special education advocates are worried that a decrease in funding could be devastating for the state, which in recent years has ranked 49th in the nation for its graduation rate for students with disabilities and where many school systems struggle to provide appropriate supports for struggling learners.
“Any decrease in funding is unacceptable,” said Jeremy Eisler, an attorney with the Mississippi Center for Justice who often represents families in disputes over special education services. “It’s not adequate as it stands.
Much of the public debate concerning changing the state’s education formula has centered on whether to compare the new plan’s bottom line to the state’s current underfunding or to full funding called for by law, with opponents saying that House Bill 957 leaves schools more than $157 million short of what the Mississippi Adequate Education Program requires under full funding.
Lost in the skirmish is how funding for special education would fare under the proposal.
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The Uniform Per Student Funding Formula is projected to increase overall funding for public schools by $108 million over the course of a seven-year phase-in. But calculations by the Clarion Ledger from data provided to lawmakers by the consulting group EdBuild show the formula is also projected to decrease funding for special education students by $19 million.
Clarke County resident Rebecca Watkins lacks confidence that districts will redirect gains from other parts of the formula back toward special education.
The 64-year-old speaks from experience. Watkins spent several years fighting for services for her twin autistic sons who enrolled in the Quitman School District.
She believes they wouldn’t be in college now if they hadn’t gained access to a learning strategist. That strategist cost money, and Watkins is worried that if districts see cutbacks in special education funding critical supports will go away.
Watkins recalled the conversations she heard as a school board member when colleagues suggested prioritizing general education programs first, over costly supports for a smaller group of students: “Are you going to provide for one or two children or are you going provide for 500?”
“It’s going to be devastating for Mississippi across the board,” she said.
The projected loss in funding comes as educators struggle to improve academic outcomes for students with disabilities.
The decrease can be attributed to the way the new formula determines how much support schools should receive for special needs students.
House Bill 957 starts with a building block of $4,800 for each student and provides additional funds for students who require extra support such as those receiving special education services, living in poverty or for whom English is not their native language.
Excluding charter schools and the state’s two agricultural high schools, districts received roughly $275 million for special education for the 2018 fiscal year. Under the new funding plan, the amount in state aid would drop to $256 million.
Under the current formula, teacher salaries drive the cost of special education programs. Critics have said this method produces an unequal distribution of state aid that’s skewed toward districts with veteran teachers who earn more or school systems that can afford to pay teachers more through salary supplements raised at the local level.
The formula under the House bill would change how special education students are funded by allocating funds based on a student’s diagnosis, rather than the cost of their teacher’s salary.
The reform guarantees that a child diagnosed with dyslexia or autism would receive the same support from the state regardless of where they attend school, but because lawmakers are also seeking to drop the base student cost it also means an overall decrease when weights for one of three special education categories are applied.
Several special education advocates the Clarion Ledger spoke with also questioned whether the proposal contains enough accountability for how funds are spent.
The legislation will require schools to detail how they spend state aid and assign a financial rating based in part on student outcomes. In general, however, lawmakers favor giving districts autonomy in how they spend formula funds, so it’s uncertain whether the safeguard will have much of impact.
Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, would not speak directly to the Clarion Ledger’s findings without an outside review, but pointed out that schools will be held harmless under the new formula for the next two years, meaning they won’t see less money than what they received for the current school year.
“I think we need to look at how this works,” he said. “If this passes and becomes law, let’s let MDE work through it and see the impact. Once we get their report, the Legislature can take action. You have time..to see if there needs to be adjustments.”
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