Audit finds special ed. funding for Kansas schools lacking

Audit finds special ed. funding for Kansas schools lacking

(Kan.) A recent state audit of special education spending in Kansas schools found that, between 2012 and 2017, districts received less than the amount required by law to cover special education costs–which officials say has led schools to rely on teachers working out of assignment.

According to the legislative audit released last month, the state was financed a rate of up to 81 percent, instead of the required 92 percent rate.

The state’s method for calculating and distributing funding is not intended to cover all special education costs, according to authors of the report–it’s intended to encourage prudent spending. Districts are more likely to spend money efficiently if they must cover a portion of those expenditures, lawmakers wrote, and providing funding based on district expenditures instead of the number of special education students served reduces the incentive to over-identify students for additional funding.

That was the theory.

In practice, however, the audit found that the limited funding has meant that districts have had a tougher time hiring the number fully certified special education teachers needed to support students with disabilities. Thus, many schools have instead relied on lower-paid paraprofessionals.

Currently, about 5,400 special education teachers and 13,900 paraprofessionals are working in Kansas schools. At minimum, according to auditors, schools statewide need more than 6,000 special education teachers and close to 11,200 paraprofessionals.

During the 2017-18 school year, districts statewide spent almost $900 million to provide special education services to about 86,500 students.

By reviewing 225 student individual education plans to understand the type and range of services students need, auditors found special education cost estimates exceed current expenditures by as much as $319 million.

“Our estimated costs exceed current expenditures largely because organizations reported that they cannot hire the amount of staff they believe is most appropriate for their students,” authors of the report wrote. “About three-quarters of our total estimated costs are associated with staff who provide direct services to students.”

Based on the need statewide, auditors found that costs associated with staffing add up to about three-quarters of the total estimated costs–with the cost of hiring and retaining special education teachers representing up to 38 percent of the total costs; paraprofessionals representing about 18 percent; and related service providers such as occupational therapists or speech pathologists representing up to 25 percent.

According to auditors, rather than following the formula defined in state law, the main consideration in budgetary decisions during the last several years was to provide enough to meet the federal maintenance of effort requirement–a requirement to be eligible for federal special education funding–as well as then-Gov. Sam Brownback’s budget requests.

As a result, special education reimbursements were only funded at between 78 percent and 81 percent from 2015 to 2017, rather than at 92 percent as required under state law.

“This funding shortage primarily affects the amount of special teacher aid that districts receive,” authors of the audit wrote. “For example, in 2017-18 districts received $27,810 per [full-time special education teacher] although we estimated they would have received about $32,600 per [full-time special education teacher] if total funding had been equivalent to 92 percent of excess costs.”

Kansas schools receive reimbursement for costs related to transportation for students with disabilities, costs related to extraordinarily expensive students, and special education teachers and paraprofessionals. Spending related to training or purchasing assistive technology devices for students is not included.

The total cost to provide special education services in Kansas could range from $940 million to $1.2 billion because students’ needs vary greatly, authors wrote.

For instance, auditors found that the costs associated with teaching students with hearing impairments or multiple disabilities can be much more expensive than students with learning disabilities or speech difficulties. Per-student, the cost of teaching and accommodating the needs of a student with a hearing impairment could cost a school between about $1,600 and $38,000, depending on the need. There are close to 8,500 students in Kansas identified as having a hearing impairment.

Overall, auditors found that state spending would increase by up to $370 million over 2017-18 funding levels if school district’s special education expenditures reflected estimated costs.

They noted that while it hasn’t been followed in recent years, Kansas law calls for a reimbursement method that links funding to school district’s special education expenditures. Auditors recommended that the Kansas Legislature consider reviewing the law to determine whether more explicit instructions are needed to make the Legislative intent around determining total special education expenditures and appropriating aid at the statutory level more clear.

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