I have two sons with autism. There are few non-family members more important in their world than their special-education teachers. When school starts next week, both boys will go to the same self-contained autism classroom with one wonderful teacher – dedicated, experienced, and determined to figure out what works for her students. My older son had her last year, and I think he’s a little in love with her. So am I.
I admire her patience and problem-solving skills. It takes a uniquely caring person to dedicate one’s life to working in special education. (The IEP meetings alone would drive me over the edge.)
That could be one reason why Wake Country– North Carolina’s largest school district with the largest special-education population– is having trouble finding special-education teachers.
… Or it could be the screwy way that the state funds special education.
The General Assembly and Governor McCrory have cut funding for teachers and teachers’ assistants and increased class sizes. The NC Budget & Tax Center did an analysis of the new state budget and found it falls $117 million short of what is needed just to maintain—never mind improve— our education system. There have been numerous reports about teachers leaving the profession because they can’t support their families on the new salary.
But special-education teachers face additional challenges. Funding for the education of exceptional children (aka EC funding) has long been inadequate. For example, North Carolina provides a monetary allotment to each school district for every exceptional child. The amount remains the same regardless of the child’s needs; a district gets the same funding for a dyslexic student who sees a reading tutor once a week as it does for an autistic student who requires speech therapy, occupational therapy, and a small classroom with specially trained staff. That allotment, $3,743 last year, amounts to less than half the funding that experts recommend.
But this is old news. A few years ago, the state paid a lot of money to a consulting firm to look at its school funding system. The consultants recommended a tiered funding system for exceptional children to ensure that schools had the funds needed to provide services to these students. The legislature ignored the study.
Then there’s this head-slapper: the state caps EC funding as a percentage of a district’s population. A district can only get EC money for 12.5% of its students. If you take a look at Wake County’s budget from last year (page 15), you’ll see that Wake County’s special education population regularly exceeds that percentage. In 2011-12, Wake County schools had 19,572 EC students – 13.3% of the district’s population. Because of the cap, Wake County had to provide services for more than 1,200 EC students without any additional funding from the state.
It’s even worse in other counties. According to the NC Department of Public Instruction’s Statistical Profile database, Robeson County schools had 4,038 EC students in 2011-12— a number which amounts to 17% of the district’s average daily membership. That means Robeson served more than a thousand EC students without state funding. That’s a huge funding gap for a county with already dismally low resources.
Children with special needs are among the most vulnerable in our state. I know from experience that the teachers and teachers’ assistants make all the difference. But in order to provide these students with their best chance at an independent and fulfilling life, the funding has to be there.