‘An absolute budget buster:’ Committee takes a sobering look at special education

It will take time — and tens of millions of dollars — to solve Idaho’s special education funding problem.

So while state superintendent Debbie Critchfield hopes to address some funding issues during the 2024 legislative session, special education isn’t on the list.

“We’re not ready with something,” Critchfield said Monday, after her ad hoc school funding formula committee spent the morning talking through a range of issues.

Officially, the Critchfield committee is charged with looking at ways to modernize Idaho’s 30-year-old K-12 funding formula. And Idaho’s special education funding approach, spelled out in a 1975 state law, might be even more outdated.

The problem quickly came into focus Monday morning.

The bottom line: the state isn’t covering schools’ costs for serving special education students. The gap is at least $65 million, deputy state superintendent Ryan Cantrell told the committee.

“It’s probably much higher than that,” he said.

That’s because schools are often reluctant to fully report their actual costs of serving special education students. Under federal law, a school cannot cut its special education budget — so in effect, school administrators can paint themselves into a corner by fully reporting their spending.

In 2022-23, Idaho schools served about 38,000 students with disabilities, according to State Department of Education data. This translated to about 12% of overall enrollment. However, about 6% of a school’s budget is earmarked for special education, Cantrell said, regardless of their special education enrollment.

And that’s a fundamental flaw, said committee member Linda Clark, the president of the State Board of Education and a former West Ada School District superintendent.

“In a world of averages, real needs are not met,” she said.

That’s certainly the case in a district like Salmon. Critchfield told the committee that she visited Salmon schools last week, and learned that 16% of their students are in special education.

“It’s an absolute budget buster,” she said.

While Critchfield doesn’t plan to overhaul special education funding during the 2024 legislative session, she wants to free up some money to address the problem. Her 2024-25 budget request includes $55.8 million in “weighted” per-student funding. Schools could use that money on special education, or for programs serving English learners or economically disadvantaged students.

The $55.8 million is a centerpiece of Critchfield’s 2024-25 budget request, released in September.

Critchfield has proposed a $120 million increase in K-12 spending, about a 4% hike.

She would like to put $40 million of this money into an outcomes-based funding line item — aligned to goals such as kindergarten through third-grade reading skills; fifth- through ninth-grade math skills; and high school graduation rates.

Critchfield won’t get the last word on any of her budget requests. Gov. Brad Little will make his budget recommendations in January, and legislators will then write and pass a series of K-12 spending bills, which ultimately go to Little’s desk.

But after Monday’s meeting, Critchfield said outcomes-based spending is among several funding formula changes the Legislature can make next year.

The committee will meet again in November. The 2024 Legislature convenes on Jan. 8.

Coming Wednesday: Idaho EdNews’ Sadie Dittenber takes an in-depth look at special education in Idaho. Watch for her story here.


Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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