‘Help us’: Minnesota school officials plead with lawmakers to fix special education cross-subsidy

May 12, 2019 by

By Taryn Phaneuf –

Rep. Angie Craig and Sen. Tina Smith
MinnPost photo by Taryn Phaneuf
Rep. Angie Craig and Sen. Tina Smith are supporting legislation to increase federal funding for special education, which has been underfunded for decades.

In the late afternoon on the first Friday in May, a group of about 30 teachers, parents, and specialists filed into a room at Henry Sibley High School in Mendota Heights. It was clear and warm outside, but the group took their seats around a set of tables to talk about special education.

U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, in whose district Henry Sibley is located, called the meeting and invited Sen. Tina Smith to join. The two are supporting legislation to increase federal funding for special education, which has been underfunded for decades. At the same time, enrollment and costs have “exploded” in the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan school district.

Craig, who has a son with special needs, has met with constituents on several occasions to learn how the lack of federal funding plays out in their schools. “The impact on our local communities is dramatic,” Craig said after the meeting. “We’re sending our federal dollars to Washington and we’re not getting that money back.”

Like most others in the state, the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan district subsidizes special education services with state and local aid that’s supposed to go toward paying teachers and staff, funding new programs, and buying supplies. Known as the cross-subsidy, the shortfall between the district’s special education costs and their revenue added up to $747 per pupil in 2017, the most recent year data is available from the Minnesota Department of Education. In all, the shortfall was more than $4 million.

It could be worse. The West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan district’s cross-subsidy was lower than the state average for that year. And while others have already cut non-essential programs because of the shortfall, the district still offers music in middle school, school board chair Joanne Mansur told Craig and Smith. But even in the supportive and dedicated community they’ve fostered, the nature of the funding scheme pits groups of students against each other. “It’s a systematic thing that needs to be fixed,” she said. “Help us.”

Lawmakers get it. But will they change it?

The responsibility for the cross-subsidy ultimately falls on the federal government, which passed mandates for special education programs back in the 1970s, setting the foundation for the system that exists today.

Back then, federal lawmakers said they’d pay 40 percent of program costs. But they haven’t. Instead, federal aid has been at or below 15 percent of special education costs (with the exception of 2010, when a recession recovery funding package doubled special education aid for that year).

Minnesota lawmakers are now talking about the problem in both the state Legislature and in Congress. Craig is working with Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber to get congressional newcomers on board with a bill that would increase federal aid over the next 10 years to get to the 40 percent portion. Smith is signed on to a similar proposal in the Senate, but it lacks the bipartisan effort of the House. “It’s going to be a real struggle to get this through this year,” Smith said. “It’s a question of priorities.”

Source: ‘Help us’: Minnesota school officials plead with lawmakers to fix special education cross-subsidy | MinnPost

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