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Kansas Special Education Task Force to Finally Meet to Examine Funding Gap
TOPEKA — Representative Kristey Williams and Senator Renee Erickson both agreed that convening a task force to study the funding shortfall in public school special education programs would not be beneficial. They believed that the financial issues were too complex and that the remedy proposed by education advocacy groups was too simplistic.
The lawmakers argued against holding hearings of the Special Education and Related Services Task Force, as they felt that gathering testimony and shaping recommendations would be of little use for the 2024 Legislature.
The task force was established by a bill passed by the 2023 Legislature and aimed to find the best way to comply with a previous statute that required state funding to cover 92% of the extra costs of providing services to K-12 special education students across the state. Currently, state aid only addresses 69% of school districts’ excess special education costs, leaving the remaining amount to be covered by local school districts.
“There is no way a funding task force could begin to unravel that mystery,” stated Williams, an Augusta Republican.
Erickson, a Wichita Republican, mentioned that the Kansas State Board of Education and various education organizations had suggested one solution to the 92% funding issue — appropriating nearly $200 million annually to close the gap.
“We don’t need a special education task force meeting to consider their position,” she said. “We already know their input, which is simply more money. There’s no need to convene a task force to discuss that.”
However, on Friday afternoon, Williams and Erickson were expected to join others on the task force for their first and potentially only meeting. This meeting might not have taken place if a majority of the task force members had not used parliamentary procedure in November to force Williams to concur. Williams eventually agreed to set the meeting three days before the start of the 2024 session.
Task force rebellion
Typically, interim legislative meetings occur during the summer and fall to provide committee members with enough time to write reports based on expert testimony and outline reform proposals for lawmakers to review in the next legislative session.
Williams, who was tasked with leading the task force until the selection of a chair, stated that only two hours would be dedicated to oral testimony from subject-matter experts and for task force deliberations. She also mentioned that the task force, which consists of five members from the House or Senate (four Republicans, one Democrat) and six non-legislative individuals, would accept written testimony.
The list of 13 individuals, representing organizations such as the Kansas Association of School Boards, Kansas National Education Association, Kansas PTA, Game On for Kansas Schools, as well as the Kansas State Department of Education and the Kansas Policy Institute, were given the opportunity to speak for five minutes each to the task force. School administrators and a teacher will also have a chance to speak, although it is unclear whether the task force will have enough time to fully consider the input, explore options, and prepare recommendations in just 120 minutes.
The first order of business for the task force is to select a chairperson. According to legislators, lobbyists, and educators, this became a point of contention when it seemed that Williams did not have enough votes from task force members to retain the position. In response, special education advocates claimed that Williams obstructed the process and publicly expressed doubt about the task force’s significance.
In an interview in October, Republican Senator Molly Baumgardner, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, dismissed the theory that the delay was due to Williams’ unwillingness to relinquish control of the task force.
“Anytime you’re trying to schedule when we’re not in session, it is a real juggling match to get folks together,” explained Baumgardner, who serves on the special education task force. “You’re trying to satisfy a variety of different schedules so that the largest number of folks can be there and participate, and we’ve had some problems with interim meetings, just scheduling times.”
After multiple requests from the task force majority, Williams eventually set the meeting for Friday, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., in Room 112-North of the Capitol.
‘Not … going away’
Kansas currently spends over $500 million annually on special education services in public schools from federal, state, and local funding. However, the state has not met the 92% requirement since 2011, as the statute lacks enforcement mechanisms to ensure legislative compliance.
The idea of establishing a task force was seen as an alternative to the 2023 Legislature’s decision to allocate funds from the general education budget to cover the special education gap. Instead of providing $182 million to address the statewide shortfall in the 2023-2024 school year, the Legislature agreed to increase appropriations for special education by $7.6 million.
Democratic Governor Laura Kelly supported a plan to add $72 million in 2024 as part of a five-year initiative to increase special education aid to 92%. Meanwhile, the state Board of Education preferred a four-year strategy that would infuse $82 million annually to reach the same threshold.
Williams and other legislators rejected the phased concepts and advocated for the establishment of a special education task force. Williams also urged the Legislature to complete a revision of the state’s special education funding blueprint by 2027.
“The formula itself is confusing. There are some flaws in the statute,” stated Representative Adam Thomas, an Olathe Republican serving on the task force. “Obviously, based on all these conversations about special ed, it’s not something that’s going to disappear.”