Inclusive Education Benefits All Students — So Why Not Fully Fund Special Education?
By Christina Nitsos
Since Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) back in 1985, California has expanded the range of services schools provide for students with disabilities. Today, our educational system is far more inclusive, offering an array of educational services for students with varying needs — including visual and hearing, speech and language, orthopedic, emotional, and cognitive impairments, as well as autism. Unfortunately, over the past decade, special education funding has not kept pace with the increased number of students with disabilities and the related costs. Our state leaders have finally acknowledged the need to increase state funding, but the Governor and Legislature do not agree on how to spend the money. How new special education funding is allocated can have profound effects on the students in my classroom.
In classrooms across California, teachers strive to meet the needs of this diverse student population through inclusive practices. Daily, teachers partner with special education experts to identify appropriate accommodations and extra support for students. In a general education classroom setting, accommodations might include special seating or extra time to complete assignments. In a special day classroom setting, attended only by students with more severe disabilities, the extra supports might include a one-on-one aide for academic support. Frequently, occupational or physical therapy, speech and language sessions are provided outside the regular education classroom in pull-out sessions. Planning for the successful inclusion of diverse learners and meeting the needs of our students with learning differences, requires thoughtful time, planning, and collaboration between general education teachers and specialists.
While California has expanded services and increased overall dollars spent on education, special education remains woefully underfunded — especially when you consider the rising special education caseloads and increased incidence of severe disabilities over the past decade. Federal law requires school districts to meet the needs of each student with disabilities, which frequently include accommodations and extra support. In California, nearly 11 percent of our students have special needs and the state spends over $13.2 billion on special education services. How does California cover the cost? The state and federal government contribute less than 40 percent; the remaining 60 percent comes from local school district contributions.
As this shortfall persists, many districts across California will continue to grapple with increasing special education expenditures and current funding deficiencies until steps are taken to address the underfunding of special education. My local Lafayette School District spends in excess of $8 million dollars a year on special education. The state and federal governments contributions cover less than 30 percent. Just through the Caldecott Tunnel, the Oakland Unified School District continues to struggle with cost pressures related to special education — this year alone the district projects special education expenses to be more than $100 million. Back in our state capital, the Sacramento City School District reported their general fund is covering 68 percent of their special education costs.
As a teacher, I believe that we must continue to ensure all our students — including those with disabilities — receive a rigorous education. In his most recent budget proposal, Governor Newsom proposed an additional $696 million in ongoing funding for special education. However, his proposal would distribute the increased funding in such a way that fewer than 25 percent of the state’s school districts would qualify. State legislators have alternate proposals to increase special education funding but would equalize the funding across districts and pay for students with disabilities in preschool. As someone who truly understands the importance of support for our students with special needs, I encourage Governor Newsom to find a way to ensure special education funding is not just adequate, but equitable and sustainable. Our future depends on the education of all our youth — who will be the future stewards of our communities.
Christina Nitsos teaches 1st grade in Lafayette, California. She is a 2018–2019 Teach Plus California Teaching Policy Fellow.