Accelify Blog

Does Montana special ed funding pass constitutional test?

May 3, 2016

By: Kathy Kelker


John (not his real name), a 5-year old in a Billings public school kindergarten class, was born with disabilities that affect his physical dexterity and his ability to speak clearly. He has been eligible for special services since birth and receives special instruction as well as speech, occupational and physical therapies at school.

Just like his kindergarten peers, John recognizes letters and numbers and some short words. He is taking the beginning steps toward reading. Because of the support he receives in general and special education, John is making progress to cope with his disabilities and develop his academic skills.

John’s experience of being included in a regular classroom and learning skills in the general curriculum is possible only because public schools provide special education for eligible children with disabilities — about 12 percent of the public school population.

Since 1975, federal law has mandated that public schools provide special education for all the children who qualify. Congress authorized the federal government to pay up to 40 percent of the cost of delivering special education, but federal appropriations have never reached that level. Currently, the federal portion of special education funding hovers between 12 percent and 15 percent of actual cost. The Montana Constitution says: “It is the goal of the people to establish a system of education which will develop the full educational potential of each person.” This includes helping students with disabilities to reach their potential.

The Interim School Funding Commission is looking at the state funding of special education to determine if students are being provided an equal opportunity to learn and reach their full potential. Questions have arisen as to the adequacy of state funding.

For example, the 2015 Legislature funded inflationary costs for general public education, but not for special education. Federal and state law mandate special education services. If the state fails to fund special education adequately, local school districts have to shift dollars from their general funds. The net effect is less money to serve students who are not in special education.

The state requires school districts to make a 33 percent general fund match for special education dollars, but most are paying much more. Statewide, the average local district is paying 41.3 percent of actual special education cost from its regular education funding.

The special education cooperatives that serve 81 percent of Montana school districts (36 percent of all Montana students with disabilities) are responsible for speech, occupational and physical therapy and school psychology in rural schools. Cooperatives do not have taxing authority. They are dependent on a state formula that allots only 5 percent of the annual special education appropriation to them. This amount has not been adjusted since it was written in law back in the 1980s, and does not adequately cover the expenses of recruitment, training and support of highly qualified professionals or pay for staff transportation to serve children in large geographic areas. Cooperatives did not receive an inflationary increase.

The commission has also heard from parents concerned about how long children with significant disabilities can stay in public school. Montana is one of only two states that does not fund schooling for students with disabilities up to age 21.

Montana used to provide such funding in order to allow students with disabilities a longer time to prepare for transition into the workforce and living in the community. This state funding was cut back to the age of 19 for all students, so students with disabilities like autism or cognitive delays must leave school, whether or not they have gained the skills they need to be self-sufficient.

The School Funding Commission must weigh whether children with disabilities are receiving an equal educational opportunity to reach their full potential and whether their services are adequately funded by the state. At stake as well is the adequacy of funding for children in general education. If money from school districts’ general funds has to go to special education, other programs that benefit all students have to be cut back. The Montana Constitution guarantees equal opportunity, educational quality and funding adequacy for all children, whether they have special needs like John who is just starting kindergarten or they are rural students served by SPED cooperatives, or typical children and youth in any Montana public school.