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Special education costs grow as scores and enrollment lag


DES MOINES – Special education spending in Iowa has reached record levels in recent years, during a time when enrollment has dropped and test scores remain stagnant, an Iowa Watchdog analysis of state records shows.

Iowa doled out $743.4 million in special education money — a figure based on the number of students enrolled and the severity of their disability — to schools in fiscal 2012 for the more than 60,000 students they served. That represents an increase of $50.8 million, or 6 percent, from five years ago, when the state served 4,127 more special education students, according to the analysis.

Schools failed in the past five years to narrow achievement gaps and racked up record special education deficits, despite the additional state funding. They filled budget holes by raising property taxes, after first gaining permission from the state’s School Budget Review Committee, which oversees such requests. The committee granted $33.5 million worth of property tax hikes in fiscal year 2011, which is $3.5 million more than five years ago, according to state records that only went through 2011.

The six-member committee, which is appointed by the governor, rarely questioned how the money was being spent until about two years ago. The state was in financial straits — Jason Glass had just taken over as the head of the Iowa Department of Education and new members were appointed by a newly elected Gov. Terry Branstad, said Jeff Berger, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Education.

“There isn’t much latitude with the committee,” Berger said. “They want to see how the money was specifically being used. It isn’t the case where people can walk in with a number and it’s OK.”

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Prior to the changes, districts submitted requests to the committee to use the money to build new facilities, maintain current buildings and cover unrelated transportation costs, all of which are not allowed under Iowa law. Districts also routinely misused the money to pay for programs that extended beyond special education, Glass said.

Glass and the committee called for districts to comply with state spending laws, which say the money can only be used for expenses directly related to special education. The committee rejected at least half of all requests last year for additional taxing authority, which is more than in previous years. Most of those districts did not return with revised applications, Berger said.

“It was actually one of the very first issues we dealt with when I became the director — what role the state had in the expenditure of that money,” said Glass, a non-voting member on the state spending committee. “There was a lot of pushback from people saying the state shouldn’t be involved. But we have to make sure that the taxpayer dollars are being spent for the purposes intended, and there was abuse of them with districts spending them so broadly.”

Other members of the School Budget Review Committee did not return calls seeking comment, including Dave Roederer, director of the Iowa Department of Management.

It’s unclear whether Glass’ efforts have resulted in fewer requests or better use of the money because 2012 financial figures have not been finalized, state officials said. He came to Iowa in 2011.

But what is clear is the boost in funding hasn’t led to better results in the classroom.

Thirteen percent of Iowa’s students have special needs, while ideally it should be at 10 percent. A healthy education system would be between 5 percent and 8 percent, according to Glass.

Special education students in the state have continued to fall far behind their peers on state and national tests, with both groups making similar gains or losses in achievement in the past five years.

The annual “Iowa Condition of Educationreport showed a performance gap of roughly 57 percentage points between special education students and their peers in both fourth- and eighth-grade math. For example, only 18 percent of special education students showed mastery in fourth-grade math, while 75 percent of general education students passed the test.

The gap is similar to that found in eighth-grade reading, where 83 percent of general education students performed at grade level. Just 29 percent of children in special education did as well.

Additionally, 71 percent of special needs students earned their diploma in 2010, compared to 92 percent of their peers, according to the most recent state data.

“We are making headway,” Glass said.

“We can’t relent and ease up the pressure on this very important issue.”

Glass, who has a background in special education, publicly pledged in 2011 to narrow the achievement gap when the state released a report that criticized Iowa’s performance in special education when compared to other states.

Why the state fell behind in special education depends on who’s talking. Glass attributes it to a statewide reluctance to adopt a systemic program change and the Iowa’s long-held tradition of local control.

GOING UP: Special education funding is on the rise while scores remain stagnant.

His first major effort in 2011 was adjusting how special education teachers taught their students. Dubbed “Response to Intervention,” teachers now look at how individual students are performing and then adjust their instruction to address weaknesses. That compares to the one-size-fits-all approach that left behind students who failed to grasp concepts, Glass said.

Branstad has yet to publicly disclose his education reform proposals for the upcoming session. Glass, however, said some would include efforts to recruit more quality special education teachers through loan forgiveness programs and incentive pay, as well as a national recruiting effort. Standards for special education would also be raised under the proposal, he said.

“The state turns every decision over to the school district to determine what’s in the best interest of kids,” Glass said. “We have a lot of place that are doing that with great quality and fidelity, and then there are others that are not doing as well with it.

“We don’t want this to be a tightly driven state solution. We are clearly saying this is an instructional approach that we should all be using.”

Contact Sheena Dooley at dooley@iowawatchdog.org

— Edited by John Trump at jtrump@watchdog.org

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