More money may not mean more disability services in Michigan schools

Michigan’s new school aid budget includes $246 million more to serve students with disabilities, but that won’t necessarily translate into more money for those services. Instead, the funding boost likely means the money will no longer come out of the general education pot.

The funding is part of the $19.6 billion school aid budget that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed Thursday at Mott Community College in Flint. The budget increases spending by 12% over last year’s budget and increases base funding for students by $450 per pupil, bringing it to $9,150. The budget also increases spending on mental health, school safety, and teacher recruitment.

“Every kid in every district deserves to feel safe and supported in school,” Whitmer said Thursday. “I am proud today to sign a historic, bipartisan education bill that will make game-changing investments to improve every student’s in-class experience.”

The state has long underfunded services for students with disabilities – by $700 million a year, according to one report commissioned in 2017 by then-Lt. gov. Brian Calley. School districts have had to dip into their general education budgets to make up the difference.

The additional funding is a big step forward but it doesn’t finish the job, Calley and other advocates for students with disabilities said. It brings the total state funding for those services up to $1.9 billion.

“Just funding the current practices better will not give our most disadvantaged kids what they need,” Calley said. “The scope of services must change with this money.”

The new $246 million won’t provide for more services for students with disabilities. Instead, it will relieve stress on general education budgets, providing more money for all students, not just those with disabilities, said John Andrejack, financial manager of the Michigan Department of Education Office of Special Education.

Districts are required to provide whatever services students with disabilities need, regardless of cost. Each student’s needs are identified by a team of educators and caregivers in individualized education programs, or IEPs, a legally binding document that outlines services the district must provide.

Those students will “continue to receive what they should be receiving based on their unique needs,” said Rebecca McIntyre, the MDE’s interim assistant director of special education. “This money really should not significantly impact students with IEPs.”

Parents won’t start seeing widespread new investments until the state fully funds the services it is federally required to provide for students with disabilities, said Craig Thiel, director of Citizens Research Council, a public affairs research group.

“Until then, any money they put into the system for special education doesn’t really go into buying new programs,” he said.

Still, the change fundamentally shifts how Michigan will fund services for students with disabilities going forward, said state Rep. Tom Albert, the Lowell Republican who shepherded the increase through the budget process last month. The formula change will result in the $246 million increase this fiscal year.

The current funding system reimburses school districts either for 100% of the state’s per pupil foundation or for 28.6% of the total cost of educating a student with disabilities, whichever is greater. Superintendents say that system vastly underfunds services for those students and requires them to make up the difference with general education dollars.

Under the system adopted in the new budget, districts will receive both the 28.6% reimbursement rate plus 75% of the per pupil foundation. In nearly every case that will result in more money for each student, Albert said.

The change sets the stage to do more in the school aid budget next year, when superintendents hope the state Legislature will agree to provide 100% of the foundation allowance plus 28.6% of costs of services for students with disabilities.

“Special education has been underfunded for years, and we’ve known it, but this is an additional step that goes in the right direction,” said John VanWagoner, superintendent of Traverse City Area Public Schools. “The reality is that we have provided strong special education services; it’s just that we’ve done it at a deficit to provide stuff to all students.”

He said the change will help ensure all students have the resources they need.

Nearly 204,000 of Michigan’s 1.5 million students receive special education services for at least a portion of the school day.

Parents like Mike Testa hope some of the additional money is directed toward helping those students by, for example, offering services in more locations in a district. His freshman daughter, who has cognitive impairments, will have to be bused across Livonia to Franklin High School, which has programs not offered at Adlai Stevenson High School, closer to her home.

He knows, though, that $246 million is meant to replenish the general fund, not add programming.

“It’s still more money,” Testa, who is a member of the Livonia PTSA Council and the Michigan PTA Advocacy Committee. “How they choose to use that money is up to the school district.”

He hopes some of the money is used to make it easier for students with less severe disabilities to receive services.

“My daughter’s needs are very clear but I know parents that have had to fight to justify additional services,” Testa said. “Sometimes students are borderline and there are financial reasons districts try to go one path versus the other.”

IEP teams are not supposed to consider the cost of required services but they sometimes do anyway, said Michelle Driscoll, policy coordinator for the Michigan Alliance for Families, which advocates for students with disabilities.

That rings true for Sharon Kelso, guardian to her two nephews who receive services through Detroit Public Schools Community District’s virtual academy. She now helps parents of other children with disabilities get needed services.

“The excuse is always they don’t have that funding,” Kelso says of many of the schools where she advocates.

Too often, she said, students are grouped in study skills classes where they don’t get the individual attention they need to meet their specific educational goals.

There is more than one way to meet a need, and financial concerns might influence which accommodations and supports are put in place for a student, said Driscoll, with the Michigan Alliance for Families. She said the additional funding might free districts to choose between more options.

Still, advocates expect little of the new money to enhance offerings, since districts already are required to provide necessary services to students with disabilities.

“Essentially, what they’re gonna do, they’re gonna help the general ed kids,” Kelso said, “and the special ed kids will be in the same predicament.”

Chalkbeat internal Grace Tucker contributed. Tracie Mauriello covers state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan. Reach out to [email protected]

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