Study Finds that SpEd Funding Should Be Integrated with Other School Funding Streams

A report published by the education consulting firm WestEd, called the California Special Education Funding System Study, identifies the opportunity for increased coordination between general and special education funding and better differentiation based on student needs. It’s the first of a two-part study on how California can improve its funding for special education students without increasing money from local, state, or federal resources; the second part will be released in January. Here are the key highlights:

  • The study provides a history and detailed description of California special education funding and shows how the current system could be improved by exploring other funding systems.
  • The study focuses not on how much money is needed for special education, but on how current levels of funding can be used most effectively through better coordination and by differentiating special education funding to match the wide variety of student needs and costs.
  • Jason Willis, Area Director of Resource Planning and Strategic Implementation at WestEd and co-director of the study, says the goal of an education funding system is to provide the right amount of funding to the right agencies so that they can provide the right services to the right students. (To which we say, woot woot!)
  • Current special education funding is based on a per-child rate and provides supplemental funds for only the costliest programs, not fully accounting for the potential differences in the cost of a diversity of  students’ needs.
  • Special education funding is separate from the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), the funding mechanism that provides districts with more money for high-needs students. But it is drastically underfunded by the federal government, so districts have to dip into general funds to cover costs. 
  • Most special education services are funded through regional bodies called special education local plan areas (SELPAs) as a way for districts to pool resources, share costs, and combine services. Because of the way SELPAs operate, special education funding is often not transparent and varies across the state. This report finds that LCFF and special education funding should be more closely aligned to create more transparency and accountability. 
  • One of the study’s co-authors says “we need to rethink SELPAs and look at ways to reallocate and redistribute funding based on diverse needs and diverse costs.” For example, if a student who is learning English also has a learning disability and receives language services through the school’s general fund, but gets learning disability services through special education, it would cost less to combine the services and hire a bilingual learning specialist. 
  • Blending funding could also help streamline the process to identify students with learning disabilities so they can receive services earlier.
  • The second part of the report will cover potential options to refine the system (supported by research), and the potential benefits and drawbacks of each option.

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