Arizona lawmakers have not adjusted the additional dollars allocated for students with special needs in at least a decade, and public schools have been left to make up the difference.
District and charter schools are federally mandated to provide services to those students, and a lack of funding does not excuse them from that obligation.
The money has to come from somewhere.
“You take it out of somebody else’s program,” said Chuck Essigs, who was involved in legislation that led to the education funding formula created in 1980.
Essigs, director of government relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said the formula met the needs of schools at the time. Today, it does not.
The current formula predates charter schools and mandated open enrollment.
Most kids went to their neighborhood schools then, and the assumption was that students with disabilities would be evenly distributed among the districts.
But that assumption is no longer valid.
Essigs said more widespread school choice has complicated the equation – he’s not alone in saying so – yet nothing has been done at the Legislature in response.
Districts with at least 1,000 students receive funding for each pupil under either Group A or Group B weights.
Group A funding is designed to support programs for the gifted as well as kids with specific learning disabilities, speech impairments and emotional disabilities, among others.
But it applies to all students.
In the 2016-2017 school year, base level funding for an elementary school student was about $3,600 and about $4,200 per high school student. Group A weights bumped those totals up to about $4,200 and $4,600 respectively.
Districts receive Group A funding per student with no consideration as to the number of students who actually require services.
In 1980, Essigs said, the rationale was to deter districts from over-identifying students in need of services just to pick up extra cash.
“If I were involved in putting a formula together today and I came up with that same recommendation, I’d get laughed out of the state,” he said.
And that’s because the 12 percent of Arizona students who have special needs are no longer evenly distributed among public schools while the funding continues to be allocated as if they were.
Two schools each with 1,000 Group A students receive the same amount of funding even if one school has a higher need for special education services than the other. That leaves the latter school with additional funding that can be put toward other costs while the former is left with a deficit.
Contrast that with Group B funding, which follows a specific student directly.
For students identified under Group B, the weights are more significant to account for the additional costs to schools to provide robust services. Students in this group may have visual or hearing impairments, autism or multiple disabilities.
And each has its own weight according to state law.
For example, in the 2016-2017 school year, an elementary school student with a visual impairment would have received 4.8 times the base level funding, or about $17,000.
Essigs said all students with special needs, including those receiving services under Group A, should be funded along these lines.
“When you have some of those students, you get the extra funding to cover the extra cost,” he said. “If you don’t have any, you don’t get any additional money because you don’t have the cost.
“The world is different today because of choice, and we ought to recognize that.”
But Group B funding is not perfect either.
In 2015, Gov. Doug Ducey created the Classrooms First Initiative Council to investigate and propose funding formula reforms.
The members unveiled their 12 recommendations in December, including a cost study on special education.
Such a study has not been conducted since 2007, and even then, funding weights were not updated to accommodate for the rising costs of services as they had been in the past.
Jim Swanson, a businessman who Ducey chose to lead the council, said the gap between what schools have received and what they have spent on services has been in the hundreds of millions just since 2007. The federal government is also supposed to be chipping in for about 40 percent of the cost, he said, but is only contributing about half that.
Here’s the thing: Students with special needs likely aren’t the ones feeling the impact of this gap, Swanson said. Their parents are often well-educated about their rights, and they have scores of advocates and legal experts on their side.
Meanwhile, the dollars are coming out of the rest of the system, he said, and the solution may simply lie in adjusting Group B weights.
“If you can solve that,” Swanson said, “you can solve other problems more easily.”
Essigs said the funding gap has been allowed to persist but the issue never seems able to rise to the top of lawmakers’ priorities.
“I don’t know how anyone can defend a formula that doesn’t recognize reality,” he said. “And the reality is that we have special education programs that cost different amounts of money based upon the students they’re serving. Their funding ought to be a reflection of that.”
He does not put the burden of defending the formula solely on Ducey’s shoulders. But where exactly this falls on the so-called education governor’s to-do list remains unclear.
Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak said he could not speak for what was prioritized before the governor was in office, but Ducey has focused instead on “increasing funds for education as a whole.”
He said Ducey’s office has moved forward with other recommendations from the council, including those regarding teacher pay and early literacy. As for the recommendation to assess special education costs, he said the idea was brought to the Legislature but failed to gain traction.
Swanson said the governor has done a good job of laying out an agenda and sticking to it, but more needs to be done to find additional dollars and put them into education.
And the approaching expiration of Proposition 301 makes that point all the more urgent. The voter-approved 0.6-percent sales tax will end in 2021 without action to extend or expand it, which would again require support from voters.
Swanson, along with other business leaders, has advocated for expanding the sales tax to better fund public schools.
It’s an idea not likely to earn praise from Ducey, and Swanson himself said it’s “probably not the best way to do it.”
But given the current political climate, he said it’s probably the most realistic solution, one that may have to be pursued through an initiative rather than relying on the Legislature.
“This is one of the significant funding problems that we have in our state,” he said of the gap. “If the state met its responsibility to fund these issues, it would alleviate other funding problems that we’re having in education. I know it’s a big number, but the dollars are getting spent one way or another.”
In the meantime, parents and educators like Irene Hammerquist are doing what they can to make up the difference in their own way.
Hammerquist worked as a paraprofessional in special education classrooms for a decade before becoming a teacher five years ago. She currently works with an exuberant bunch of first graders at Bales Elementary School in Buckeye, some of whom have special needs.
And while making the necessary modifications to meet their needs is challenging, she said watching them make progress can also be especially gratifying.
“When they get it, there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing the lightbulb go off,” she said. “That moment of understanding. Some of them just need to be taught in a different way. Maybe, as a teacher, it means explaining it three or four different ways.”
And as a parent, it means making the extra effort at home.
Hammerquist has two children with special needs: a son who has been diagnosed as autistic, bipolar and ADHD, and a developmentally delayed daughter also with ADHD.
He has an excellent memory but struggles socially. She can read fluently but cannot comprehend the meaning.
Hammerquist has had students who crawl under their desks to calm down. Others have little jars of beads to occupy them.
Each need is different, she said, and it often comes down to the teacher to meet it.
“Is there a funding issue? Sure. We would all agree on that,” Hammerquist said. “But do we do the best that we can with what we have? Absolutely.”
In an ideal world, educators and schools would be able to meet students’ needs head on every time. Someone in the classroom would be able to sit down with Hammerquist’s daughter one-on-one and show her the story was about a dog not a frog.
But Hammerquist said that’s not a realistic expectation right now – for those with special needs and those without.
Arizona School Boards Association Director of Research Anabel Aportela, said it’s not just a special education issue. Dollars are being taken out of the budget that pays teachers’ salaries and regular instructional expenses.
Music and arts programs are cut. Librarians lose their jobs.
Aportela said there is a limited amount of funding and a hierarchy of students who have access to it, non-special education students being at the bottom of that list.
She is not convinced redistributing weights would solve the problem. Rather she proposed rethinking the base level funding altogether.
But before the state can talk solutions, lawmakers have to acknowledge the problem.
“It’s an expensive proposition, and we try to plug up the holes as we go along,” she said. “But until you accept the fact that this is a big problem and we’re going to have to invest more than we currently are, I’m not sure how far we can get.”