TOPEKA — The state's budget woes fueled routine underfunding of the formula guiding Kansas appropriations for special education in K-12 public school districts and made it tougher to afford specialized teachers to work with students who were gifted or had a disability, a state audit said.
The analysis revealed lack of compliance from 2012 to 2017 with a Kansas law requiring the state to cover 92 percent of each school district's special education costs not met by federal allocations or base state aid. Auditors said the driving force during the period was then-Gov. Sam Brownback's strategy of restraining state spending on special education, sometimes called categorical aid, without jeopardizing flow of federal dollars.
"As a result in school years 2015 through 2017," the auditors said, "categorical aid was only funded at 78 percent to 81 percent."
The Legislative Post Audit Division, in a report ordered by the 2018 Legislature, recommended the state finance special education at the statutory amount or amend the education law to reflect the year-by-year method preferred by lawmakers.
The auditors said the Republican-led Legislature passed and Brownback signed a series of bills that sidestepped the statutory rate and shaved millions of dollars annually from appropriations to special education. The threshold of 92 percent was established to "encourage prudent spending" by school officials, the audit said.
The report published earlier this month said Kansas and Nebraska were among states setting a statutory limit on funding of special education. Iowa, Oklahoma and Tennessee have distributed funding for special education based on student need.
In the 2017-2018 school year, Kansas school districts spent nearly $900 million on special education services for 86,500 students.
If districts began receiving categorical aid at the 92 percent level and each special education program was staffed to match the model developed by legislative auditors, the yearly tab could rise to $940 million or $1.2 billion.
"It may be difficult for districts to hire the number of staff suggested in our model because of current teacher shortages," the audit said.
The auditor's framework contemplated districts would hire 1,000 more teachers of special education and reduce by 4,000 lower-wage paraprofessionals attending to students.
Auditors said examination of 33 Kansas school districts indicated categorical state aid for expenditures on special education varied widely. The range could be influenced by a district's per-student cost of services, salaries paid educators of special education and the amount of unreimbursed costs for special education, including technology purchased by districts for benefit of students.
The Lansing district was at that low end of this compensation scale, receiving 57 percent of extra costs for special education. The Wellington district was on the high side, receiving the equivalent of 148 percent of excess costs, auditors said.
Other districts, in terms of state aid for special education: Hutchinson, 128 percent; Manhattan, 103 percent; Leavenworth, 101 percent; Seaman, 94 percent; Garden City, 92 percent; Ottawa, 83 percent; and Topeka, 75 percent.
Districts first rely on the mix of federal and base state aid to pay for special education, with local taxpayers picking up the rest. School districts in Kansas are required to deliver special education to students aged 3 to 21, including those in private schools.
There are 14 recognized categories of special needs with "learning disability" accounting for 25,000 students in Kansas. Others receive services if identified as gifted or to address developmental delays, hearing, speech or visual impairments, emotional disturbances and autism.