Terri Dawson came to an education meeting in her hometown of Buffalo last month determined to explain why Wyoming needs to continue funding special education.
She is the director of the statewide Parent Information Center, which advocates for and empowers families of children with disabilities. She knows all of the ins-and-outs of how the state of Wyoming funds its special education programs, and offered several reasons why the state should maintain current funding levels for those programs.
But it was a personal story Dawson told that earned her the only applause at a two-hour meeting where state consultants for Wyoming’s “recalibration” effort talked to administrators, educators, and school board members. They gathered at Buffalo High School to learn what recommendations these “stakeholders” want to suggest about funding Wyoming public schools, including special ed.
“I have a 32-year-old son who has Down syndrome,” Dawson said. “It’s our schools in Buffalo that made him a productive adult.” She added that special education programs throughout the state have also helped many students with disabilities to succeed in their lives.
Dawson said her son spent his entire K-12 school years in Buffalo. He now lives in Cody. “He’s got a full-time job, lives in his own home, and pays taxes,” she said.
Now that some Legislators are looking to slash public school funding considerably—Senate President Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) said he would like to see $200 million in additional cuts on top of the $55 million the Legislature has already cut over the past two sessions—Dawson and others feel compelled to defend programs like special ed against lawmakers who like to say that “all options are on the table.”
No blank check for special ed
“Recalibration” is normally the process every five years of examining the funding formula for public schools to figure out what works best and most efficiently. The current “recalibration,” however, is special in that lawmakers called for it specifically in response to the $250 million shortfall Wyoming public education faces as the result of slumped mineral revenues.
An important guide to the “recalibration” process is Wyoming’s Constitutional mandate that ALL students in the state have access to a quality education. Special education has been a challenge for officials to equitably provide since a State Supreme Court ruling in 1995 outlined a series of basic requirements.
Wyoming is one of just a few states in the nation that uses a complex reimbursement method to fund special education, and it’s the only state that reimburses special ed costs 100 percent.
“The federal government in 1975 promised to provide 40 percent of states’ special education funding,” Dawson explained. “But from the start they’ve never done what they said they were going to do.” In fact, the federal government has only funded 16 percent of states’ special education costs since 2014.
The state reviews how the school districts spend their special ed money. Dawson said she wanted to dispel a myth that the state gives disabled students everything their parents request.
“It’s not like it’s a blank check,” Dawson said. “Program directors don’t just say to disabled kids, ‘Yeah, you want that [training or other services], you got it, by golly.’ They have a system where they have to justify all of the money spent on certain line-items. There are checks and balances.”
Every time the reimbursement issue comes up, she said advocates like herself have to educate legislators who are convinced “it’s an open check.”
Working with parents to collaborate and increase efficiency
Rancher Casey Tillard, a member of the Converse County School District No. 2 Board of Trustees in Glenrock, said he and his wife have 9-year-old twin sons, one of whom has severe autism and doesn’t speak. “We have a great special education program in Glenrock but it doesn’t fit his needs,” Tillard said. “So he gets into a Suburban every morning and rides 30 minutes to Douglas, which has a wonderful program. He’s made huge improvements since he’s been doing that.”
Tillard suggested school districts that aren’t too far from each other could similarly collaborate to ensure that special education students in rural areas can receive the help they need.
“Parents have to have some say where their kids go if you do consolidate,” he said, “because Natrona County wouldn’t fit my son. We have family in Douglas, he knows people. … Parents need to still be allowed to choose what they consider the least restrictive [educational environment] for their children.”
Wasting money by considering all special-ed students dangerous
Several school officials suggested ways the state can save money that’s now spent on special education. Kirby Eisenhauer, associate superintendent for instructional support in Campbell County School District No. 1, said the Wyoming Legislature passed a law that requires all special education teachers to be covered under workers’ compensation. He said it shouldn’t be a mandate.
“Special education teachers work with some students who can be violent and cause some injuries, but someone working with a student who has a vision or hearing impairment, those folks don’t need to be covered [by workers’ comp] anymore than a reading teacher or an English teacher,” he said.
Eisenhauer said there should be an evaluation of which special education teachers should be covered. “We’d probably be looking at [saving] several million dollars if we were to do that,” he said.
Ryan Kelly said officials at his employer, Natrona County School District No. 1, believe special education spending should remain reimbursed at a 100 percent rate. “It allows us to be responsive to our special education needs and meet our legal obligations,” he said.
Kelly said the special education staff has implemented measures to operate the department within the budget cuts already made. “If there’s a belief that there’s waste in the special education reimbursement model,” he said, “we believe the school district can collaborate with the Legislature and Department of Education to find [budget] efficiencies, maybe through some restrictions or guidelines,” he said.