Why do we need Special Education?

By Mary Mo Sheehy

When I began teaching in 1972, there were no guaranteed special education programs in Montana’s public schools. Students with severe disabilities were sent off to institutions.  Students with less severe disabilities were just expected to muddle through.

That changed in 1975 when Congress passed The Education for All Handicapped Children Act, requiring that children with disabilities receive a “free appropriate public education” and providing federal funds to help states and local schools make the accommodations necessary to include these children in the “least restrictive environment.”

It was a change for the good for all children. One of the great side benefits of public education is that time spent in a public school is the only time in most Americans’ lives when they rub shoulders, literally and figuratively, with the entire population of abilities, interests, creeds, ethnicities, backgrounds, and living conditions in a community. By learning to tailor educational strategies to children with special needs, teachers found ways they could use similar strategies and creative variations to improve their effectiveness with all children in their classrooms.

Unfortunately, over time neither the federal government nor the state held up its share of the funding bargain. The state is particularly negligent.  Special education costs more than tripled in the past 29 years. In 1990, the state funded 81.66% of special education expenditures; local districts paid 7.09%.  Today, the state assumes less than half that percentage, while local districts’ share increased nearly six-fold.

Local schools are obligated to provide the accommodations children with disabilities need. The only way to meet this obligation when the state fails to fund its share is to use more general education funds for special education – or ask local taxpayers for more funding.

Not only has the state failed to assume anything approximating its 1990 share of special education costs, it will not even provide inflationary increases in those funds, as it does in other areas. HB 27 aims to change that. Carried by Representative Moffie Funk of Helena, HB 27 asks the legislature to recognize that inflation affects special education budgets just as it does other budgets – how could it not? – and requests these costs be funded for special education.

As with special education itself, this inflationary increase is good for all children. The less special education needs to draw dollars from the general education budget, the less often we must turn to local taxpayers with mill levies to make up the difference.

HB 27 was heard by the House Education Committee on January 23. It faces a long, hard journey to success. It must make it out of that committee, pass the House, and make it through House Appropriations – all before going to the Senate!  Please contact your legislators and tell them to support inflationary increases for special education. Click here to contanct yours. It’s the right thing to do – for all concerned.

Mary Sheehy Moe is a former high school teacher, higher education leader, school board member, and state senator. She now serves on the Great Falls City Commission. You can reach her at mary.sheehy.moe@gmail.com