PRESS EDITORIAL: Time to seize a special education opportunity

We expect a lot from our schools.

We expect them to provide the best possible education for all students, including the increasing number of students with special needs.

We expect them to provide mental health services and hire adequate numbers of counselors and school psychiatrists.

We expect them to help steer our children away from drugs, alcohol, tobacco and vaping.

Meeting those expectations comes at an increasing cost, and the state, which increased school spending in its 2019-21 budget but not to a level that addresses some key educational needs, is now in a position to do better. Gov. Tony Evers, a former state superintendent of public schools, has proposed investing $252 million in unexpected state revenue in public schools to make good on the state’s commitment to funding two-thirds of school costs.

But Evers’ bill appears to be a non-starter with leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature, who last week all but rejected it in favor of using the surplus for tax relief. Schools, they argue, receive enough state money.

Evers says that his bill would, in fact, provide $130 million in property tax relief by funneling some of the surplus  into the equalized aid school funding formula. Beyond that, it would address one of the most significant challenges facing schools — the increasing cost of special education.

According to a Wisconsin Policy Forum report published last year, special education costs eligible for state aid reimbursement increased 18.3% to $1.4 billion between the 2007-08 and 2017-18 school years.

At the same time, the state’s primary source of special education funding has remained flat and last school year covered only about one-quarter of special education costs, down from a peak of 70% in 1973.

That has left Wisconsin school districts to pick up the balance to the tune of more than $1 billion. Because the taxing authority of districts is limited by the state, that is money that otherwise would have been used to serve all students.

Inadequate state special education funding is not just a problem for large metropolitan districts and poor rural ones. It’s a challenge in the heart of Ozaukee County, one of the richest in the state.

Last school year, the Port Washington-Saukville School District educated 452 students with special needs, an increase of 28 students from the previous year, bringing its special education enrollment to 17.3% of its total enrollment — above the state average.

And while the number of special education students is increasing, so is the severity of their challenges and the district’s cost of providing services.

Last school year, special education services cost the Port-Saukville School District $5.6 million. It received state reimbursement for only about one-quarter of that amount, leaving the district to pay more than $4 million —  12.5% of its general fund that pays for services for all students.

So-called high cost students — those whose services cost more than $30,000 a year — also present a financial challenge for the district. In the 2017-18 school year, the district spent $379,000 to educate nine high-cost students. Of that amount, $98,000 was reimbursable through the state and the district received only $79,000.

Evers’ proposal would provide $79.1 million to increase the state reimbursement rate for special education students and reimburse districts for all per-pupil special education costs over $30,000. It would also earmark $19 million for mental health services and allow schools to apply for extra state funding for school counselors, psychiatrists or nurses.

But even as special education costs consume a greater percentage of the finite money school districts have to educate all students, Republican leaders contend schools are adequately funded.

 There are reasons throughout the state and particularly in Ozaukee County to believe that taxpayers don’t agree. Since April 2015, taxpayers in three Ozaukee County school districts voted to increase their taxes by approving referendums — Port-Saukville $49.4 million, Grafton $39.9 million and Northern Ozaukee $14.49 million for a total of more than $100 million in local taxpayer financed school improvements. The Mequon-Thiensville School District is asking its voters to approve $55.7 million in school improvements in an April referendum.

Those referendums allowed, or would allow, districts to improve their facilities, but the needs of schools extend beyond infrastructure, and one of the most significant is adequate funding for special education. A state that today pays less than one-third of that cost should take advantage of the opportunity it now has to do better.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494
 

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