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Legislators’ actions on special education are inexcusable

By Ben Rodgers

The recently approved Green Bay School District budget includes a transfer of more than $33 million from the general fund to cover special education costs. 

Why this happens is inexcusable and must stop.  

We recently completed our seven-story series on special education in Wisconsin through the NEW News Lab, a partnership of six newsrooms covering issues important to the region, supported through a grant from Microsoft. 

This seven-part series comes on the heels of a four-part series we did earlier this year on education funding as a whole across the state, and why we are seeing more and more school referendums on local ballots. 

Here’s the basics from more than 35,000 words of reporting:  

School districts receive funding from the state on a per-pupil amount, which is different in every district, based on spending levels in 1992.

These amounts are doled out for general education students and students with no physical or mental disabilities. 

Students with physical or mental disabilities are considered special education, and districts are legally required to provide them with a fair and appropriate education.  

To be considered for special education, there is an oftentimes gruelling process for parents to navigate for their child to obtain an individualized learning plan, or IEP. 

Obtaining an IEP is not a simple process, but it is legally required, and it often leaves parents frustrated and in tears. 

Districts cannot just throw a special education label on a student, because there are miles of red tape to navigate.  

I’m hard-pressed to think of a more difficult and demanding process in our society today. 

Because of the federal requirement to provide special education students with an education, districts employ specialists in the field, such as special education teachers, aides, interpreters, therapists and more. 

Specialists cost money, almost always more than is budgeted by districts for special education.

By law, districts cannot go below the funding they allocated for special education the previous year, known as maintenance of effort, which makes them hesitant to spend a higher amount in perpetuity that can never be decreased.   

To make up the gap, which is around $1 billion in Wisconsin, districts transfer funds for general education to cover special education.

This is how Green Bay will end up moving $63 million in two years. 

If districts were adequately reimbursed in the first place, none of this would happen. 

To compound matters, public school enrollment across Wisconsin is dropping, and schools rely on a funding formula based on enrollment. 

You might think with a decrease in students in general, there would be a corresponding decrease in special education students. 

You would be wrong. 

As the total number of students dropped in Wisconsin over the past decade, the percentage of students with an IEP actually increased.

This means a higher percentage of kids in public schools now require specialized services mandated by the federal government. 

Green Bay saw an increase of 80 students in its special education program this year. 

Five decades ago, the state used to cover 70% of special education costs. 

The most recent biennial state budget increased the amount of support to just about 30% by the budget’s second year.

Gov. Tony Evers asked for 60%, which was quickly rebuked by state Republicans calling his request unrealistic.

Regardless if your kids attend public or private school, if they are homeschooled, or if you don’t have kids – if you own a home you pay property taxes, and the largest percentage of those property taxes goes toward public education. 

Green Bay, which is home to nearly 20,000 students across 42 schools, could most likely find another use for that $63 million.

However, because of the low 30% reimbursement, those dollars must be spent on special education, which is a major part of why Green Bay residents will likely see a referendum in April. 

When districts are required to transfer dollars away from general education to support special education, the general fund is oftentimes left in a lurch, and to get out of the lurch, schools often go to referendum, an expensive and time-consuming process that comes back to hurt the taxpayer. 

This doesn’t take into account teachers who are burned out after being forced to do more with less, parents who are frustrated because the support they want for their child isn’t possible, or administrators who work collaboratively, but then battle each other behind the scenes for extra funds.   

Now the push from state Republicans is to use one-time federal COVID-19 relief funds to fix this issue. 

The problem is, this can’t be fixed in two years, some of these students will have these disabilities for life. 

Severe learning disabilities don’t magically disappear.

Moreover, this creates a funding cliff, where in two years, all those services paid for by the federal grants could evaporate along with the one-time use funds. 

If this sounds convoluted, that’s because it is. 

For far too long, the political party in power in Wisconsin has been using schools and students, the largest economic driver we have as a society, as bargaining chips. 

Students who are non-verbal, or who use a wheel-chair are not bargaining chips.

They are the most vulnerable members of society who legally must be given a fair chance, just like everyone else. 

They are just as important. 

Those who write the budget and debate these issues have failed the whole of Wisconsin twice this past year, on general education and special education funding.  

The state had more than enough funds available when it wrote the most recent budget, because the Wisconsin Policy Forum projected an extra $4.4 billion in state collections through June 2023. 

After the most recent budget, there is now $2.6 billion that’s currently not budgeted for anything.

Wisconsin could also choose to expand Medicaid for $1 billion. 

But those funds are one-time use and would eventually run out. 

If Wisconsin wants to see long-term change in terms of special and general education funding, our state will need systemic changes in how we fund our schools. 

The low-hanging fruit would be legalization of marijuana (something a majority of residents said they approve of in non-binding referendums in 2018) to fund schools. 

However, that would only bring in an estimated $150 million annually at the start, a drop in the bucket in terms of a long-term solution for a growing problem.  

Another avenue is legalizing sports gambling in Wisconsin, although that would be difficult to achieve because it would require an amendment to the state constitution. 

However, more than half the nation currently allows sports gambling, and last month New Jersey had $1 billion in bets placed. 

A tax on winnings could add millions of dollars a year to Wisconsin’s coffers.  

Wisconsin is also home to eight billionaires with a combined net worth of $52.2 billion. 

Those eight could afford a tax increase and still possess wealth beyond most of our wildest dreams.    

The money is there to help schools in the short term, and we have avenues as a state to fix them long term. 

If those in Madison choose to do nothing, you need to know they had the power to remedy this quagmire all along, and you vote accordingly.

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