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As the state struggles with spiraling costs of special education, a new report from the Minnesota's Legislative Auditor explains that the solution to the problem lies in increasing spending for special education set aside from the general education budget.
“We concluded that the funding arrangements for special education contain disincentives for controlling spending,” Auditor Jim Nobles wrote in his office's report.
Jody Hauer, a program evaluator in the auditor's office, explained that this should be a call to increase spending in special education as the special education population has been steadily increasing in recent years.
"The legislature should consider options to reduce school districts reliance on the general education funding that they've been using to pay special education expenses," she said to Minnesota Public Radio.
Hauer explained that in the 2010-2011 school year, around 112,000 students in Minnesota, or 13 percent of the school population, received special education services. This represents an 11 percent increase over previous years.
“We see the population of special education children rising at the same time that the full K-12 population is slightly decreasing,” Hauer said to the Minnesota Public Radio.
Marking a step forward, Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed increasing special education funding by $125 million over the next two years. This amounts to a 13 percent increase in state aid.
However, even as these proposals are being made, some lawmakers are looking to save by potentially easing back or even removing mandates.
Under federal law, students that have a disability that could potentially affect their ability to learn are entitled to free special education programs. This could amount to anything from extra help for reading to attending special education courses.
The auditor’s report explains, however, that Minnesota special education mandates often go beyond federal law. For example, they explain that federal mandates require student evaluations to take place over a period of 60 days, while Minnesota requires it to be done in 30 days.
This discussion has many worried that crucial mandates and regulations could be eased up. Minnesota's Commissioner of Education, Brenda Cassellius, explained that these mandates are in place for a reason and easing up on them could leave students in need without help.
Sue Abderholden, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, explained that, in fact, more must be done.
In addition to increasing funding, she wants lawmakers and education officials to concentrate on ways to make the special education system better and more efficient.
“How can we partner with community organizations in the mental health area or even autism experts?” Abderholden said to Minnesota Public Radio. “Maybe there are other ways to bill Medicaid for the services provided in the school, maybe there are different ways to arrange personnel.”
Teacher’s union president Tom Dooher of Education Minnesota also responded to the auditor’s report with a plea to support Dayton’s proposal, explaining that changes must be made.
“Special education has become an expensive morass of over-regulation that prevents many of our educators from doing what they do best — teach children with special needs,” Dooher said to the St. Paul Post Bulletin . “It's time to make changes.”
Nancy Swanson is a writer for 360 Education Solutions