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Kansas: 18% increase in special ed over 10 years; increase in students' needs

Mar 5, 2023, Kansas City Star: ‘A safety issue’: Johnson County mom says low Kansas funding creates special ed crisis

Sara Jahnke received a call from her son’s elementary school that made her heart drop. Jahnke said her 6-year-old, Crosby, had escaped his school last fall and run outside toward a busy street. The Shawnee Mission first grader, who has Down syndrome, needs to be closely monitored because he’s mastered unlocking doors and is known to run off — and when he does, he’s fast.

“They gave me a call to let me know it happened and that he was safe. Honestly, he’s a runner. And I think they were doing everything they could. But the class is just so understaffed,” Jahnke said. “He is a high-needs child. And I think that a lot of the kids that are in his class have really high needs and take a lot of attention. When you’re watching a lot of kids, it’s hard.” The district declined to confirm to The Star that it happened.

Classrooms like Crosby’s are strained this year as school districts manage record staff vacancies, coupled with a lack of resources from a decade-long underfunding of special education in Kansas. …

And as schools report a growing number of special education students — along with an increase in those students’ needs — districts are pulling more money from their general education coffers to fund special ed.

As a result, all students are getting shortchanged, they argue.

“As a longtime educator and administrator, I have never witnessed the near perfect storm with the combined effects of staff shortages, increased student needs, and lack of funding. It is deeply concerning to me,” said Lee Hanson, an administrator in the De Soto district. “From my viewpoint as a director of special education services, we are getting by, but at the cost of burnout to our staff.”


Educators across the state are urging the Kansas Legislature to increase special education funding to the level set by state law. To make up for millions of dollars districts say they say they should be getting from the state, school leaders pull funds from their general budgets, money they wanted to use for salaries, training, and services and instructional resources for all students.

Federal and state laws require schools to provide special education, and the federal government pays for a portion of that cost. Kansas statute requires the state to provide 92% of the extra costs. However, the state hasn’t fulfilled that obligation since at least 2011.

Gov. Laura Kelly — who made education funding a hallmark of her campaign — has called for the Legislature to infuse into special education $72 million in new dollars each year for five years to fill the gap, saying the state can afford it….

But Republican lawmakers are hesitating. Some are wary of spending more on K-12 education, which accounts for about $6.4 billion in the state’s $22 billion budget.

Top GOP lawmakers want to rewrite the state statute or reallocate existing public education dollars to special education instead of spending more.

The Senate education committee voted Thursday to remove Kelly’s requested $72 million for special ed and reconsider the item during the Legislature’s annual wrap-up session in late April.

Sen. Renee Erickson, a Wichita Republican, said it’s too early to make a decision now….

The House has approved a bill that would establish a task force to study the issue and a resolution urging the federal government to provide more money. Federal funding also has long fallen short.

“I’m fully aware that our federal partners are not pulling their fair share of this challenge,” Kelly said last week during a virtual meeting with education advocates. “I am working with other governors — I even brought this up to the president himself — that Congress, Washington, D.C., really needs to come full force and commit to fulfilling their pledge. They should be paying for 40% of the costs of special education and they’re nowhere near that.”… “But in the meantime, we still have a responsibility here.” SEARCHING FOR STAFF

With districts now feeling the pain of staff shortages across the board, filling special ed jobs has only gotten harder….

The number of special education students in Kansas has increased nearly 18% over the past decade, according to the state school boards association. That comes as total student enrollment was growing slowly then began to decline around the first year of the pandemic….
Families flock to Johnson County school systems that have a reputation for quality special education programs. In Shawnee Mission, Smith said the district serves nearly 4,000 special ed students, a number that over the past five years has grown by 360. In the past five years, the Olathe district has seen the number of special education students grow by more than 13%. In Blue Valley, more than 18% of students receive special education services. Special ed enrollment is up 17% since 2017, while overall enrollment was down 2%, Superintendent Tonya Merrigan said.

In De Soto, the district is serving nearly 1,000 special ed students this school year, a 20% increase over five years.

The state school boards group says the number of students identified with disabilities grew because of federal and state policies, as well as more requests from parents. The state has increasingly prioritized early intervention, identifying students with developmental delays or disabilities in early childhood and providing them support from the start….

Educators also say they’ve seen more students with emotional, behavioral and developmental needs since the pandemic….

Kansas districts have had to increase special education spending by more than 31% over the past decade. That is 50% higher than the rate of inflation over the same period, the school boards group says.

But without the state or federal governments providing enough money, local districts must divert money away from general education….


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