ARIZONA — Arizona Superintendent of Education Kathy Hoffman last week appealed to the state legislature to make up a chronic, $100-million shortfall in the money the state provides for special education students.
Some 12 percent of the state’s students must cope with learning disabilities. Federal law requires special services for students diagnosed with conditions like attention deficiency disorder, dyslexia, deafness, vision impairment emotional disorders and mental illness and disabilities.
However, the state provides less money than it takes to provide those legally-required services — forcing districts to shift the money from other programs.
“I have heard countless times that our underfunded special education system leaves many schools with difficult choices on were to make cuts in order to provide services – choices they should not have to make,” said Hoffman.
Rural school districts in Gila, Navajo and Apache counties generally have special education populations above the 12 percent statewide average. They also have a harder time attracting qualified special education teachers, contributing to a chronic shortage of special education teachers and other specialists.
In Apache and Navajo counties, most of the 22 districts have special education percentages well above the state average, including Alpine (21 percent), Concho (19 percent), Vernon (18 percent), St. Johns (14 percent), Round Valley (15 percent), Show Low, (14 percent), Snowflake (14 percent) and Heber-Overgaard (13 percent). Only Pinon, Holbrook, Window Rock and Ganado are below the state average.
Hoffman, a public school speech pathologist before her election as superintendent, said special education programs face a crisis, without the resources to provide mandated services.
Moreover, the recent state-funded teacher pay raises mostly didn’t cover physical therapists, school psychologists, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists and other specialists critical for serving the needs of special education students. The shortage of those specialists has reached “crisis levels,” Hoffman told the Senate education committee, chaired by Sen. Sylvia Allen, who represents all of Rim Country and the White Mountains.
Hoffman noted that special education teachers also face much higher burnout rates than other teachers, since they must cope with a challenging student population and a much greater burden of legally required paperwork and planning.
She recalled her work with one of her favorite students. The child could not speak due to brain damage and severe seizures. She taught him to use an iPad to communicate. “By the end of the year, for the first time, he was able to say ‘I love you’ to his mom,” she told the Senate Education Committee.
“I have heard from so many people — parents and educators alike — who are frustrated by years of cuts that have resulted in an under-resourced system that is stretched thin,” she said.
She expressed support for several bills that seek to make a dent in the problem, including last year’s SB1491 that funded three specialists in the state education office to help provide specialized training for teachers, including how to help children with dyslexia.
She also urged the state to provide state funding to make up for this year’s loss of $20 million in federal funding for preschool programs. Studies show that diagnosing learning disorders in the preschool years can make a big difference in their ability to cope with school once they start. She urged support for HB 2806, which would help keep preschool programs from shutting down.
State and federal funding for special education programs comes to about $1 billion annually — an 8 percent increase since 2013, according to the Arizona School Boards Association. That doesn’t include classroom site funds and transportation, which also provide funding for special education programs.
“Districts have no choice but to fund special education programs since they are mandated by state and federal law; therefore the only place that districts can make cuts are in non-special education programs,” said Arizona Association of School Business Officials director of governmental relations Chuck Essigs, himself a former special education teacher.
Special education funding also often doesn’t count as “classroom” spending in the Arizona auditor general’s report. Often, expenditures show up in “student support” and “administration.”
The percentage of special education students has remained relatively stable at about 12 percent since 2013, but the increasing severity of the disabilities has driven an increase in costs, according to an analysis by Anabel Aportela, director of research for the Arizona School Boards Association.
The percentage of students with multiple disabilities like autism and severe intellectual disability rose 33 percent between 2013 and 2016.
Overall, the share of students with the most severe disabilities had increased from 1.75 percent of the total student population to 1.86 percent. Meanwhile, the number of students will mild disabilities decreased from 9.78 percent to 9.64 percent of the total student population, according to the study.
The shift to more severe diagnosis has driven a 17 percent increase in special education teachers between 2004 and 2007 and a 43 percent increase in special education aides.
The last study to document the full cost of providing special education services was conducted in 2007. It documented a $318 million shortfall.
Last year, Sen. Allen sponsored SB 1037, which would have required a cost-study audit of special education programs for district and charter schools. The bill passed the senate on a 30-0 vote, but died in the House.