LANSING, Mich. — Michigan special education students lag behind children with disabilities in other states and the system is badly underfunded, forcing schools to divert nearly $700 million annually from their operating budgets to fill the shortfall.

That’s the main takeaway from a new report issued this past week at the request of Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who chairs a state task force on special education. The study — compiled by a subcommittee of intermediate school district administrators, advocates, an economics professor and a lawmaker — says Michigan should do more to improve special education funding systems and programs.

Here’s what the experts found:


POOR OUTCOMES

Michigan is among 23 states that the U.S. government says “needs assistance” because it has not fully implemented requirements under the federal special education law for students ages 3 through 21. The state report says educational outcomes for Michigan children with disabilities trail those in other states. About 13 percent of the state’s 1.5 million public students receive special education services through an individualized education program, or IEP.


FUNDING PROBLEMS

Michigan’s special education population declined by nearly 8 percent in the last five years, to 197,788, but certain special education funding dropped by almost 16 percent to $201 million. The overall student population dipped by 4 percent. Because special education services must be funded, schools shifted about $692 million from their general operating budgets in the 2015-16 academic year to spend nearly $3.1 billion overall on special education. In other words, school districts spent $459 less per student overall to cover the shortfall from federal, state and local sources of revenue. Noting “the realities” of public funding, the report suggests short-term ways to reward districts for best practices and long-term approaches “requiring more, sustained public investment over time.”


SOLUTIONS

The experts say Michigan is unique in not allocating a state earmark for special education from birth to age 3, despite research showing early intervention in the first 1,000 days of life is an effective strategy to help young children with delays and disabilities. At kindergarten entry, 56 percent of children who have had a developmental delay and received early intervention in the first three years of life are average or above academically. Adequately investing in a state program, Early On, would “close the developmental gap earlier and mitigate the need for future special education services” — saving money, according to the report.

It also recommends:

— Dangling the promise of higher funding to schools that promote inclusion of special education students within general education classrooms if appropriate.

— Giving schools a leadership role in helping students with disabilities transition into employment.

— Improving teacher training by raising the bar for admission into college programs, requiring a yearlong residency and testing if would-be teachers have “real skills” to do the job. The length of student teaching in teacher prep programs varies from one semester to nearly two years. The experts suggest a more robust preparation system modeled after apprenticeships, like in the medical profession.


INEQUITY

The report says inequity in special education is “a serious issue” because a student with a disability in the Upper Peninsula may not get the same funding as one in the Lower Peninsula, due to varying property tax levels and home values. There’s also a disparity in state per-pupil funding by district. Long term, according to the study, the state should increase funding to address disparities based on where a child lives, change a reimbursement formula and better help the parents of special education students.


WHAT’S NEXT

An early indicator of how seriously Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration and legislators will take the report comes in February, when the governor proposes the final spending plan of his eight-year tenure. The team of experts says it realizes a $692 million shortfall in the $14.6 billion school aid fund can’t be fixed immediately, but there are “small steps” that can be taken quickly.


Online:

Special Education Funding Subcommittee Report: http://bit.ly/2jluxba


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