Discussions over new special education funding in California Posted September 3, 2019 by Sanjana Kotha

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As discussions over next year’s budgets unfold, Governor Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders both agree that the state should increase funding for students with disabilities. However, they disagree over how they should spend the new money.

Newsom is proposing a $696 million increase in funding for special education. However, the Assembly Budget Committee rejected the Department of Finance’s proposal on how to divide up this money. While the 21% increase in funding is substantial, critics point out that less than a quarter of the state’s school districts would qualify for the new money. Additionally, qualifying school districts would be able to spend the money as they would like.

Instead, the Assembly Budget Committee proposed an additional $593 million to pay for services for students with disabilities in preschool and to equalize funding for regional special education agencies. The Legislative Analyst’s office has aligned with the Budget Committee as well to prioritize preschool funding of special education and funding equalization.

In the current funding system, the state funnels its special education funding through Special Education Local Planning Agencies (SELPAs). SELPAs work with districts and charter schools. Funding is based on the total number of students in a district. The formula to determine funding for SELPAs is outdated and perpetuates inequities. Newsom’s program would not affect this.

Currently, school districts bear the bulk of the costs of funding special education. The state and federal government contribute less that 40% of the $13.2 billion spent on special education in California. As a result, school districts must pay the rest out of their general budgets. The state’s contributions didn’t grow under Governor Jerry Brown because he prioritized the Local Control Funding Formula, which governed K-12 spending separate from special education. 

The cost of special education can prevent school districts from granting teacher raises, lowering class sizes, and expanding programs. While student enrollment is decreasing across the state, the proportion of special education students with expensive-to-treat disabilities has risen. In 2001-02, 1 in 50 special education students had a disability that is expensive-to-treat, while in 2016-17, this number rose to about 1 in 8.

To address this, Newsom proposed raising funding for special education. During Brown’s time as governor, his administration considered eliminating SELPAs. In this proposed plan, the Local Control Funding Formula would allocate funding on the basis of the proportion of English learners and low-income, foster, and homeless children. Students with disabilities would also be entitled to extra funding. However, this idea was unsuccessful due to opposition from SELPAs as well as parents of students with disabilities, who distrusted school districts.

Newsom’s plan calls for a hybrid; he wants to keep SELPAs and the current funding structure, but he wants to steer new funds to districts using a different formula. Only districts with both a high percentage of low-income students and special education students would receive a part of the proposed additional funding. $14,5000 per special needs student would be given to districts or charter schools where over 11% of students having disabilities.

Critics of Newsom’s plan believe that it would promote unproductive incentives for funding. They say it would motivate districts to over-classify students with disabilities so that they would be eligible for more money. This system would also punish districts that identify and treat impairments early.

Ultimately, critics believe that the Newsom administration’s intent to increase funding is justified, but disagreements continue regarding how to allocate and regulate the use of these funds.

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Sanjana is a junior in high school who is passionate about raising awareness about developmental disabilities and neurological disorders. This interest developed from neuroscience research she’s conducted and she wants to share information with the community.

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