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Tony Evers Seeking Additional $600M In Special Education Funding

Smaller Increase Was Denied In 2017-19 State Budget

special education class
In this April 3, 2012, photo, teacher Bev Campbell holds up images of animals and insects for identification by students in her special education class at Amelia Earhart Elementary School in Hialeah, Fla. Lynne Sladky/AP Photo

Wisconsin state Superintendent of Public Instruction and Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Tony Evers is asking the state to increase special education funding by $600 million in the 2019-21 state budget.

That’s a giant increase to the current base funding for special education which is less than $369 million.

The state funds special education through a reimbursement method, and according to DPI, reimbursement rates in Wisconsin have not kept up with inflation or demand.

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DPI and public education advocates argue local school districts have had to make cuts elsewhere in their budgets in order to meet the needs of students with disabilities.

The current DPI request would increase the reimbursement rate to 60 percent by 2019, with the goal to bring the reimbursement rate to 90 percent in the future.

Wisconsin Public Education Network Director Heather DuBois Bourenane said all students stand to gain from the proposal. In a press release, DuBois Bourenane and other advocates praised Evers’ plan.

“As districts are forced to dip into their own general funds to cover the special ed costs that aren’t covered by state or federal reimbursement, they’re having to take it away from other kinds of programming,” DuBois Bourenane told WPR.

But DPI’s previous request for additional special education funding — less than $29 million in the 2018 fiscal year and less than $60 million in the 2019 fiscal year — was rejected in the 2017-19 budget. The proposal would have raised reimbursement rates to 28 and 30 percent respectively.

Still, Tom McCarthy, spokesman for DPI said the department is optimistic about the request, partly because the landscape for how people want to see special education treated is becoming part of the public discussion.

“So you saw in other budgets where different subject matters were kind of the place to spend your money, a couple of years ago it was rural schools — I think this is the rural school discussion of a couple of years ago,” said McCarthy.

According to the department, Evers will be rolling out four major budget requests this year. Special education funding is his second. The first was a request looking for $60 million for mental health resources in schools, which among other programs would help pay for pupil services staff and parent peer specialists.

As Gov. Scott Walker seeks re-election, he’s been campaigning as an “education governor” because of the additional funding he’s set aside for public schools and technical colleges.

But critics, including Evers, have argued previous budgets have not made education a funding priority.

Editor’s note: This story was last updated at 5:05 p.m. Monday, July 30, 2018.