A task force studying how Nevada schools are funded was told Monday that special education funding hasn’t come anywhere near keeping pace with costs, as well as that the federal contribution has dropped dramatically over the years.
“The feds have not lived up to their commitment to (provide) 40 percent of special education funding,” said Julia Teska, the newly named state director of budget and administration. “They have not gotten close to that.”
She was joined by Deputy Clark County School District Superintendent Kim Wooden, who said the federal government currently provides just 12 percent of the cost of special education there.
Nevada’s existing funding model funds “special education units” — essentially paying for a teacher in a classroom. Teska said that model was created in the 1973 and 1975 legislative sessions and, at the time, it covered the basic cost.
But rising costs have far outstripped the increases in funding and the total number of special education units funded by the state has been static at 3,049 since 2009. Members were told that means districts including Clark, Washoe, Lyon and Carson City have to pay the entire cost of additional units out of their non-state budgets.
She said special education units are funded at $41,408 for fiscal 2014 and $42,745 for 2015. Statewide, she said, the average cost of a teacher and benefits is $75,756 in 2014 and $77,384 in 2015, which means the school districts have to absorb the difference — more than $34,000 a year for each unit that isn’t provided by the state or federal government.
Teska said that doesn’t count the cost of other services special education students need and receive, including assistants and aides, psychologists, nurses and the necessary administrative staff to support the programs.
In addition, rural school officials said, that doesn’t include high transportation costs some counties face because of the distances students must be bused to get them to class.
But none of that changes the federal law mandating that states and individual school districts never reduce special education funding.
“This is the only area where, by law, districts have to spend the money,” said Washoe schools Superintendent Pedro Martinez. “We don’t have a choice.”
In addition, how students are taught has changed dramatically as different court rulings mandated special education students be taught in the “least restrictive environment.” That means putting them in regular classes with other students rather than in special education classrooms as much as possible.
No decisions were made at the task force meeting. Members have about three months to produce recommendations for the 2015 Legislature.