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Guest Opinion | Pasadena Unified Faces Special Ed Funding Deficit Because of Some Unique Historical Facts

Published on Wednesday, June 27, 2018 | 9:21 pm

[Editor’s Note: Far-reaching events are unfolding which will shape the future of Pasadena’s public schools. School Board Member Scott Phelps walks us through some of these issues in a series of Opinion pieces he has written to help the public better understand this very important moment in Pasadena Unified’s history, and the difficult decisions the District faces. This is the second in a series of three pieces by Phelps.]

PUSD is facing an increasing deficit in the funding of its special education programs and services because of some unique historical facts.

School districts get funding for special education called AB 602 funding. This funding is distributed to Special Education Local Plan Areas (SELPAs). PUSD is its own SELPA. Unfortunately, the funding allocated under this is done through an old system that results in vastly different per pupil funding rates. Rates for SELPAs in the state range from $470 per pupil to $917 per pupil. PUSD’s rate is low, $507. Another reason for insufficient funding is that PUSD’s SELPA is funded based on the district’s overall general education enrollment, or average daily attendance (ADA), which has declined for the last many several years. This allocation model for AB 602 should be refined and equalized. Funding should be sensitive to the financial needs of SELPAs, like PUSD, that face additional challenges and have larger proportions of high-need children. The amount of revenue that PUSD has received that is restricted for special education services was about $27.5 million in 15-16 and is estimated to be about $27.7 million this current 17-18 year, i. e., it has been relatively flat.

Given that PUSD has long been home for various licensed children’s institutions (LCIs), and therefore has a substantial number of foster youth receiving special education services through Individual Education Plans (IEPs), PUSD’s expenses are relatively high and are increasing because despite overall declining enrollment in the PUSD, the special education population has grown in number.

Over the past several years, a combination of increasing special education costs and relatively flat state and federal special education funding has resulted in the PUSD unrestricted budget covering an increasing share of these costs. In 2013-14, the additional contribution was $18 million. In 2016-17, the additional contribution required was $27 million. In the current year it will be over $30 million. For the first time ever, the amount of funding contributed from the unrestricted fund, currently estimated to be about $30.5 million, will be higher than the restricted funding received for special education, about $27.7 million. These key details can be seen on page 21 of the PUSD’s Second Interim Budget approved on March 15, 2018 and viewable at The total expenditures on special education this current year will be about $57.7 million, which is 25% of our total budget of $234 million. Special education students make up only about 16% of the total PUSD student enrollment.

The total cost per pupil for special education has risen in the last three years, from $15,000 to over $21,000. The average costs of educating students with disabilities is more than double these of mainstream students due to the need to provide IEP-required services and intensive interventions for some students, and the fact that agencies providing services to SELPAs raise their rates each year according to the inflation rate. Exacerbating this is a regulation called “maintenance of effort,” under which SELPAs cannot reduce expenditures compared to the previous year.

Another issue is that funding to serve preschool students with disabilities is insufficient and unequal across the state, and programs and services for preschool students with disabilities are insufficiently funded by two federal grants. Preschool students are not included in the Average Daily Attendance—so PUSD does not get general revenue for them–and the population of preschool students with significant disabilities has increased in the last several years. This has required increased contributions from general education budgets. Additional funding should be provided to SELPAs for preschool children with disabilities, including funding for specialized facility needs and professional development.

The funding formula for special education transportation is antiquated and under-appropriated. While costs have risen significantly, state spending caps have capped funding at 35%. This has placed a significant burden on school districts’ unrestricted funds even as costs of providing transportation for students with disabilities has risen via inflation and an increased number of special education students. (Home-to-school transportation for special education students is a related service as designated on an IEP.) In PUSD, special education transportation costs totaled approximately $4.3 million in 2016-2017.

The federal government has never funded special education at a level that is even half of its promise (when it enacted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, it estimated the federal share of the funding needed) to fund up to 40% of special education costs, forcing states and local educational agencies to cover remaining costs. While the population of students requiring special education and services continues to grow, federal funding has not grown and has even decreased at times.

The small acknowledgements of the crisis in the CA governor’s budget are grants to help recruit and retain hard to staff special education teachers. The budget does not address the very different and inequitable per pupil funding rates across SELPAs, nor does it contain any meaningful increases to special education funding.

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