Report dives deep into California’s special education funding system

A new report from WestEd finds that while more than half of California’s special education students spend 80 percent or more of the school day in a general education classroom, a more inclusive funding system is needed to promote these inclusive practices.

The publication, California Special Education Funding System Study: A Descriptive Analysis of Special Education Funding in California, is grounded in the fact that five years into the Local Control Funding Formula era, the state’s complex funding system for its 725,000 students with disabilities (nearly 12 percent of the K–12 population) remains a separate entity despite its inclusion in the accountability system.

California’s funding system has some benefits, the authors write, but also features several serious drawbacks. “Chief among them is that the system does not differentiate funding for special education based on characteristics or needs of the population, despite evidence that the needs of all special education students are not the same and the costs of special education programs vary,” the report reads. Additionally, students with disabilities have other needs that are often addressed through different and separate programs and funding streams.

The report closely examines the role of special education local plan areas (SELPAs) — noting that 95 percent of LEAs are in multi-LEA SELPAs — and each establishes its own funding formula to allocate and distribute funding it receives from the state to member LEAs based on local needs. “Consequently, in California’s current system, any change in how the state determines allocations of funds to LEAs may not directly influence how funds flow to LEAs unless changes are also made in how those funds are distributed by the state or in the requirements for how multi-LEA SELPA governing boards allocate and distribute funds,” the authors write.

With the first report largely serving as an analysis of the current funding system by using data collection and interviews with SELPAs, WestEd will provide a series of options to continue to refine and improve funding systems for students with disabilities in its next entry for the project.

The implications and recommendations report may include:

  • Recommendations for allocating additional, supplemental one-time or ongoing funding that is differentiated based on student needs, including special education need and/or other need (e.g., socioeconomically disadvantaged students, English learners)
  • Recommendations for adjusting future base allocations in addition to equalizing the base per-child amount
  • For supplemental one-time and ongoing funds, considerations for whether all or some funds should be distributed to different combinations of regional and local entities
  • Strengthening existing or developing additional mechanisms, such as high-cost pools and supplemental funding streams, to create economies of scale for high-need special education students and high-cost programs
  • Modifying some or all of the rules around limitations on special education spending to further encourage planning with general education

Funding shortcomings part of the backdrop

The WestEd findings surface in a special education funding climate that is far from sufficient to deliver the services children need and is stretching the limited resources of local educational agencies. Despite the promise of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — the intent was for the federal  government to provide states with 40 percent of the excess costs of providing special education and related services — federal funding accounts for only about 11 percent of spending, leaving the remaining spending to state and local funding.

In CSBA’s May 2019 report, The Landscape of Special Education in California: A Primer for Board Members, experts and policy analysts note that per-student funding rates vary widely from one SELPA to another. In many LEAs, overall student enrollment is declining, reducing ADA and the money schools receive to serve all students, including those with disabilities. Further, while the costs of special  education services have increased, state spending on special education has not kept pace. “As federal and state special education funding fails to keep up with overall special education costs, districts are increasingly filling in the gaps with their general funds,” the CSBA report states.

The WestEd report similarly highlights that California’s special education funding system “had not been substantively revised for more than 20 years prior to the increases to the per-student base amounts and additional funding through the Budget Act of 2019.”