Indiana schools will receive more money for special education programs over the next two years, an increase educators say is long overdue and applaud for coming at a crucial moment for students.
Lawmakers increased funding for special education by $196 million, an average 10.8% yearly increase, in the state’s new two-year budget, part of a massive increase in overall education spending thanks in part to an infusion of federal stimulus funds. They also approved an 18% increase worth $5 million each year for English language learners.
The additional money targets two groups of students that are expected to need significant remediation after schools struggled to provide them support when the pandemic closed buildings. Indiana is under federal investigation after the state received multiple complaints that schools’ virtual learning plans did not include individualized services for students with disabilities.
“The timing of this feels right,” said Jim Dalton, superintendent of Damar Charter Academy, an Indianapolis school for children with disabilities. “It feels like the state is being responsive to these students who have extra extra challenges.”
The new budget won’t affect the investigation, but it does signal that special education is a priority after years of concerns about funding. A Legislative Services Agency report published in March found that, compared with six other states, Indiana allocated a smaller percentage of its education budget in 2019 to special education than did five others, including Ohio, Kentucky, and Florida.
Dalton said this is the first significant boost in special education funding he’s seen since the Damar school opened 11 years ago. The new state money is directed toward students with severe and moderate disabilities and preschool programs. Still, the increase likely won’t be enough to fully fund districts’ special education.
For Damar, the increase is worth about $300,000, or 6% of its annual budget — enough money to consider hiring more staff and expanding, Dalton said. The school has a waitlist three times its current enrollment of 194 students. But it’s not enough funding to completely support the school’s operations, which rely heavily on an approximately $720,000 donation of staff members from the charter school’s operator, Damar Services Inc., a disability services nonprofit.
“Special education is the most expensive student to educate,” said David Marcotte, executive director of the Indiana Urban Schools Association, who applauded lawmakers for the increase. “It’s an underfunded area and it’s not going to be self supporting. Some of our districts spend millions of dollars on top of what is provided in that fund.”
Marcotte said the increase does take the pressure off of other parts of schools’ budget, which will allow districts to provide more for students across the board. Combined with the increases to per pupil funding, the new budget will have a significant impact, he said. That’s especially true for schools in urban areas, which have significant special education and English language learner populations.
Marion County district Beech Grove City Schools is expected to see a 15% increase in special education funding in 2022, worth nearly $295,000. Around 19% of the district’s 3,000 students receive special education services, and nearly 4% are English language learners. Superintendent Laura Hammack said they plan to direct all of the new money to hiring more teachers.
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“Our reaction is sincere gratitude,” Hammack said. “As we are looking for ways to help to bridge the gaps that were present before the pandemic … we will really need to double down those efforts to ensure those students are being served.”
Still, educators say there is more work to do in the coming years. Budgeting for special education is difficult because the severity of students’ disabilities can change drastically from year to year, and state funding for students in three categories — “severe,” “moderate,” and “communication” — doesn’t cover the costs to provide services, Hammack said.
Lawmakers stopped short of adopting an advocacy group’s proposal to create more categories for funding based on the severity of students’ disabilities and give greater funding increases to the more severe categories — an idea Hammack supports.
“It’s hard for me to say I’m disappointed,” said Kim Dodson, who leads The Arc of Indiana, which proposed adding categories. “I do wish they would have been a little more thoughtful and strategic on where they were putting money.”