Funds

Kan. school leaders urge lawmakers to fully fund special-ed services

Sara Jahnke holds her first-grade son, Crosby Orlando, during a news conference on special education funding Nov. 10, 2022, at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Sara Jahnke holds her first-grade son, Crosby Orlando, during a news conference on special education funding Nov. 10, 2022, at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

By RACHEL MIPRO
Kansas Reflector

TOPEKA — It’s difficult for 6-year-old Crosby Orlando to stay in his first grade classroom.

Born with Down syndrome, he has been
in therapy since he was four weeks old to work on behavioral and
communication barriers. Orlando is mostly nonverbal and uses signs to
communicate with classmates, though he gets restless and wants to run
around. Once, he even escaped his Shawnee Mission school.

Crosby Orlando, 6, was born with Down syndrome and has been in behavioral therapy since he was 4 weeks old. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Crosby Orlando, 6, was born with Down syndrome and has been in behavioral therapy since he was 4 weeks old. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

His mother, Sara
Jahnke, said she used to struggle with guilt about the amount of
resources Orlando required as a child with extra needs in a classroom
setting. Jahnke said she then realized how beneficial being in a
classroom was for both him and his classmates.

“They know he’s different and they
learn to love him for those differences,” Jahnke said. “Crosby being in
the classroom is fantastic. It pushes him to do better, to learn, to
grow. But it’s also teaching his classmates a lesson in compassion and
acceptance.”

Orlando is one of thousands of Kansas
children — one in six of public school students — who receive special
education services. But school districts have been forced to shoulder
the burden of paying for special education services that are underfunded
by the Kansas Legislature. Advocates say there’s a dire need for more
money to support special education services, and the state is in a
financial position to afford that investment.

Kansas law requires the state to
provide 92% of the extra costs of special education, but the Legislature
hasn’t met the requirement since 2011, according to the Kansas
Association of School Boards. KASB said the current level of funding is
at 71% statewide, and districts are having to divert funds from general
education programs to pay for special education costs. KASB estimates
the gap in funding is about $160 million.

Anjanette Tolman, executive director of special services for Olathe public schools, says the state only provided 54% of funding needed for special education services in the district. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Anjanette Tolman, executive director of special services for Olathe public schools, says the state only provided 54% of funding needed for special education services in the district. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

KASB held a news conference Thursday
at the Statehouse, following a legislative committee hearing on special
education funding, to urge immediate action from lawmakers.

Olathe public schools have around 30,000 enrolled students, with more
than 5,000 of these students receiving special education services,
according to Anjanette Tolman, executive director of special services
for Olathe schools. Tolman said the school district was only funded at
54% last year, and had to use more than $28 million from its general
fund budget to cover the difference.

Tolman calculated that the district could hire 350 additional
certified staff members, improve school programs and increase pay to
school employees if special education were funded at required amounts.

Shawnee Mission schools Superintendent Michelle Hubbard said her district was spending more than $8 million on the funding gap.

With Kansas carrying a record surplus
of more than $2 billion, educators said there was no excuse for
lawmakers not to fully fund special education.

“In past years, the budget situation has been the reason why they hadn’t,” said Shannon Kimball, president of the Lawrence school board and chairwoman of the KASB Legislative Committee. “You
can’t blame it on the budget now, so now they’re looking for other
excuses not to fund it. The state has plenty of money to meet these
needs.”

Shannon Kimball, president of Lawrence school board, asks lawmakers to fund special education services during a news conference Nov. 10, 2022, at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Shannon Kimball, president of Lawrence school board, asks lawmakers to fund special education services during a news conference Nov. 10, 2022, at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Revenue
estimates released this week projected an additional $800 million
surplus for the current fiscal year and $400 million for next year. Adam Proffitt, Gov. Laura Kelly’s budget director, said Kelly will address special education funding in her January budget.

“Some other things that she’s talked
about doing is fully funding special education,” Proffitt said during a
Thursday announcement about the state’s revenue forecast. “Not sure what
that policy is going to look like, but that’s something that we’ll sit
down and talk about later this month and early December.” 

Education advocates weren’t happy
with Thursday’s special education hearing. Several advocates raised
concerns about testimony from Kansas Policy Institute CEO Dave Trabert,
saying he blatantly misrepresented special education needs. Trabert is a
longtime opponent of funding public schools at constitutionally
required levels.

Trabert said school districts weren’t hurt by the lack of government funding for special education.

“Our examination of the facts
indicates there is no shortfall in school funding for special education
or general education,” Trabert said in testimony for the committee.
“Many students may not be getting the education they deserve, but it is
not for a lack of funding.”

Leah Fliter, KASB assistant executive director of advocacy, said his testimony was inaccurate.

“There are groups that cherry pick
data and present it as fact,” she said in an interview after the
hearing. “Meanwhile, they are presented as the experts, and the actual
experts who work for the Kansas State Department of Education — who are
the real authorities on special education funding — are questioned and
belittled and pressed to say where they got their data.”

Kimball said the resistance by lawmakers to invest in special
education services was a deliberate attempt to avoid spending money on
public education.

“I think that ultimately their goal is to cut public funding in
general, and they see this as one avenue that they can try to attack,”
Kimball said.

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