Archive for Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Sebelius plan creating concerns over special ed dollars

January 21, 2004


— A proposal from Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to change the distribution of special education dollars for public schools is drawing criticism because a few districts would lose big.

Sebelius says she wants the special education dollars to follow students, rather than teachers and paraprofessionals. However, some educators think her plan would hurt districts with high concentrations of special ed students.

In 58 of Kansas' 302 school districts, special education aid would decrease more than 1 percent, and in 26, aid would drop by more than 10 percent, according to an AP computer analysis of data provided by the state Department of Education.

Topeka would suffer the biggest hit, losing a third of its funds. Lawrence and Chanute also would lose more than a quarter of their funds.

Aid would increase more than 1 percent in 238 districts, and seven with fewer than 600 students would see their allocations more than double. Six districts' gains or losses would be 1 percent or less.

Masking the effects of the special education change would be other parts of Sebelius' plan, which overall would phase in a $304 million spending increase for schools over three years. Recommendations for higher general aid and additional funds for kindergarten, bilingual education and programs designed to help poor students ensure that no district's total budget would decline during the 2004-05 school year.

Still, some educators remain nervous, believing her special education proposal blunts the benefits of her total plan.

"The general feeling in the education community is that it's not a good way to go," Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said Monday.

Sebelius acknowledged during a news conference Friday that her plan "may not be the best way" to handle special education funding and promised her administration would continue to review the issue.

However, she defended her goal: "I have been given the impression that, by and large, most people support the move so that the special ed dollars are allocated per child and not per teacher."

Some $250 million in special education funds now are distributed to districts based on the number of teachers and paraprofessionals employed, as well as the costs for transporting special ed students.

Sebelius' plan would lump special ed funds with $2.6 billion in general state aid, allocating $434 per pupil.

The problem, Tallman said, is her plan allocates extra money for every student, rather than extra funds only for special ed students.

A few districts would face multimillion-dollar losses: Wichita, $5.8 million; Topeka, $3.3 million; Olathe, $2.3 million, and Lawrence, $1.9 million. Chanute would lose $314,000.

"Her plan doesn't match the needs or the populations," said Diane Gjerstad, a lobbyist for Wichita schools, which would lose nearly 20 percent of its special ed dollars. "Those who have small populations probably think it's a pretty good idea. Those who have large populations are probably wincing."

But not all of the losers would be large districts. Those suffering the largest percentage losses include Atchison, Iola, and Quinter, with 353 students.

While small districts would benefit, so would some larger ones, the AP computer analysis showed. Liberal is among the top 10 in percentage gains, and the Blue Valley district in Johnson County would see its special education funds increase 7.8 percent.

"I think you'll have trouble finding an exact pattern on who wins or who loses," said Dale Dennis, assistant commissioner of education.

Meanwhile, some legislators still are trying to grasp the details.

"We haven't had enough information yet," said House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka. "The devil is always in the details."

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