Source: NC Policy Watch
Multiple school districts are facing funding shortages when it comes to supporting students with special needs, according to an NC Policy Watch report.
North Carolina caps funding for exceptional children programs at 13% of a district’s enrollment, regardless of how many students are in need of those services.
Districts received $4,549 per eligible special needs student, in addition to regular per-pupil funding, for this school year. That number does not change based on the level of services needed in any particular district, NC Policy Watch reported.
There are approximately 200,000 students in North Carolina who require special education services and most of the state’s 115 school systems have identified more than 13% of students in need of those services.
NC Policy Watch spoke with Amanda Moran, Chatham County Schools’ assistant superintendent for academic services and instructional support about this specific funding need.
According to Moran, exceptional children make up 13.5% of the district’s student population. Luckily for Chatham County, with the maximum 13% funding from the state, along with a county supplement to cover the difference, the school district is able to cover these special education costs for this year.
If a district needs more funding for these programs than what the state gives them then they must rely on local funding – and that doesn’t always work out.
“In my nine years in this role, that has not always been the case,” Moran said. “There’s been a few times that we’ve been off by 3% or 4% from the state, so when that has occurred, we’ve had to supplement our state EC [exceptional children] funding with local funding.”
Moran said she has worked in other school districts where they haven’t been able to properly fund these programs and local funding wasn’t an option to close the gap.
“So, you might not be able to purchase resources that students might need,” Moran said. “You may not be able to fund positions that you might need and you might really have to max out caseloads, so you might have to really max out teachers as high as you can go on the number of students that they can serve.”
When this happens, teachers’ jobs become even more stressful and difficult, meaning that oftentimes, students don’t get the high-quality education they deserve because teachers are stretched to capacity.
North Carolina lawmakers recently raised the funding cap from 12.5% to the current 13%, but according to NC Policy Watch, the increase in state funding doesn’t necessarily meet the demand for services – a big problem for smaller or more rural districts that don’t have the kind of tax base that other districts do, meaning that gaps in funding can’t be filled.
“Chatham is fortunate in that our county commissioners have funded our district at a pretty high level,” Moran said. “We have more than a $1 million additionally [for special education services] that we provide locally, so even when there are funding dips, we’re able to cover them locally.”
The financial burden of filling the gaps in funding doesn’t need to be placed on local districts – the state legislature could fix the issue, North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) officials told NC Policy Watch.
NCDPI wants state lawmakers to make changes so that funding for special education students would no longer be determined by the percentage of students enrolled, but would instead be based on the services provided.
As of now, additional funding is the same for every special needs student “whether they receive 30 minutes of speech once a week or they are in a self-contained classroom with a nurse, with occupational therapy, with speech therapy,” Sherry Thomas, state director of the Exceptional Children Division at NCDPI, said at a Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee meeting in early October.
Independent nonprofit research institute RTI International was commissioned to look at how North Carolina funds its special education programs and they determined that the state should “pursue a funding model based on levels of service” because those models provide a more “accurate accounting” of special education costs and they “align with the ‘efforts of Individualized Education Program’ teams and other staffers to focus on the unique needs of students, regardless of disability.”