The best thing the Legislature can do with a portion of its $9 billion surplus is to fully fund special education for all schools.
The annual report from the Minnesota Department of Education shows that school districts in 2020 spent $673 million from general education funds to pay for the gap, or unfunded special education mandates. If the state finally met its obligation to fund this gap, it would benefit all students and every school district in the state.
For more than a decade, schools have asked the state to fully fund special education, but rarely has there been a year where the budget had a surplus. Well, if there is any year that the state has enough money to fulfill its obligation to our public school districts, it is this year.
How would paying the special education bill help all kids? Right now, money to cover the programs is taken from a school’s general fund – the money to pay for classroom instruction. With special education fully funded, that money could stay in a school district’s classroom, resulting in smaller class sizes, more teachers and student support personnel.
If the Legislature were to use a small part of the surplus and fully fund special education, Anoka-Hennepin would receive $844 per student. A regional Greater Minnesota district like St. Cloud would receive $1,045 per student. A smaller district like Milroy would receive $1,307 per student. This full funding would improve education in all classrooms across all school districts in the state and provide stability as schools plan their budgets to help students achieve.
As it stands now, with a huge gap in funding from the state, school districts either have to slash budgets or ask local property taxpayers to help cover the state’s promise.
As legislators who support fully funding special education have said, “It’s time to put our money where our mandates are.”
Most people realize that the federal government’s promise to pay 40 percent of special education costs results really results in 15 percent, shorting school districts across the nation. Let’s not forget the state of Minnesota also needs to fund its fair share. The state has the $673 million to close this funding gap. Now is the time the public should ask their Legislature to finally pay the full amount of its bill.
It’s the right thing to do for the state, for our schools and for our children.
Kirk Schneidawind is the executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association.