Progress, next steps for students with disabilities

The following column appeared during June, 2019 in several APG of East Central newspapers including the Star News and Morrison County Record. 

Progress, next steps for students with disabilities


Suspicious, disappointed, pleased and grateful: Those were some of the reactions educators and parents shared to the 2019 Minnesota Legislature’s efforts to help students who have some form of disability.

Along with the progress, there’s lots more work needed — and not just more money — to help the growing number of these students.

Here are a few facts, educator and community reactions, and three suggestions.

According to Tom Melcher, director of Minnesota Department of Education’s program finance division, from the 2002-03 school year to the 2018-19 school year:

  • The number of students with special needs increased from 113,786 to 145,442.
  • The percentage of these students, birth to age 21, served by public schools grew from 13.4 percent to 16.3 percent.
  • Legislative funding for students with special needs grew from $1.2 billion to almost $3.1 billion.

A 2016 Minnesota Department of Education report describes a legislative requirement that superintendents annually report how much a “district is cross-subsidizing the cost of special education programs with general education revenue” ( Federal and state laws require that schools serve students with disabilities, as well as other students.

The term “cross subsidy” bothers Gretchen Godfrey, assistant director of PACER, a research, information and advocacy organization serving students with special needs and their families (more information at She explained, “These are first, district students.”

Furthermore, districts use general fund dollars to support not just students with disabilities, but also student athletes, artists or students in other extra-curricular activities. Yet no one calls that spending a “cross subsidy” for those students.

This year’s Legislature provided an additional $94 million so that the amount of the “cross subsidy” doesn’t increase. The Legislature also reduced the rate paid by a resident district (where the students with special needs live) to the district where those students attend: In the 2019-20 school year, resident districts will pay 85 percent of “unfunded costs,” down from 90 percent. Starting in the 2020-21 school year, resident districts will pay 80 percent of those costs.

Some complain about districts paying charter public schools to serve special need students. However, MDE’s October 2018 figures show that in 2018-19, thousands more students with special needs open-enrolled from one district to another (13,771), compared to the number who transferred from a traditional district to a charter (8,311).

Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, was glad the Legislature adopted Gov. Walz’s recommendation regarding funding for these students. However, he’s concluded “the state needs to take a look at the whole funding mechanism. This is a short-term fix.”

Here’s part of the enrollment picture in area school districts.

— In Anoka-Hennepin, the number of students with special needs grew from 5,707 to 6,695 between 2015 and 2018.

— In Hopkins, the number of such students declined from 1,100 in 2014-15 to 978 in 2018-19.

— The number of students with special needs in North Branch grew slightly from 449 in 2017-18 to 463 in 2018-19.

Stephen Jones, superintendent of Little Falls Community Schools, reported that the number of students with some form of disability in the district has grown from 438 (13 percent of students) in 2014-15 to 531 (16 percent) of students in 2018-19. In the recently completed school year, the district spent about $4.8 million to serve these students, representing about 16 percent of its general fund budget. Jones says the cross subsidy for 2016-17 is about $1.8 million.

Here’s how local leaders reacted to legislative efforts focused on students with special needs.

Superintendent Jones of Little Falls wrote: “The additional funding to address the cross subsidy deficit in Minnesota schools is appreciated but it is really a drop in the proverbial bucket as it applies to the massive budget impact we experience because of the unfunded mandates associated with special education.”

Deb Henton, North Branch Area Schools superintendent, wrote, “We have a long way to go to cover the increasing costs of special education.”

Craig Ihrek, Caledonia Area Schools superintendent, wrote, “Any help we can get will be greatly appreciated.”

Steve Massey, superintendent of Forest Lake Area Schools, wrote: “I’m suspicious that the Legislature may have underestimated the cross subsidy growth and it will probably increase. The Legislature and the governor definitely need to do better.”

What could be done?

  • As PACER suggests, legislators should consider creating a statewide form to use with special needs students. Forms vary across the state, requiring extra paperwork if students move from one community to another.
  • Ask MDE to convene regional meetings in which districts and charters that are unusually successful with special needs students in various categories can share strategies.
  • Create a state funding task force that includes some of the Minnesota’s most successful schools, families, students and advocacy groups to develop recommendations on funding and increased efficiencies.

Minnesota Commissioner of Education Mary Cathryn Ricker described legislative education funding actions as a “down payment in making Minnesota the ‘Education State.’”

While there was progress, actions such as those suggested above can help Minnesota public schools be more effective and efficient.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at