State rule forces Duluth district to pay costs for special education students in other districts
Under a little-known state rule, Duluth and other districts pay the costs for special education students who open-enroll to other school districts — often with no say in how those students will be educated.
A report from the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor has brought attention this month to the phenomenon of school districts diverting a sizeable chunk of their general-education money to special education.
It’s called a “cross-subsidy,” and it’s one reason Duluth is experiencing crowded classrooms, teacher layoffs and program cuts. In 2011, the Duluth school district subsidized its special education programs with $8 million from its general fund.
But under a little-known state rule, Duluth and other districts also pay the costs for special education students who open-enroll to other school districts — often with no say in how those students will be educated.
Last year, the Duluth school district paid $2.3 million toward the special education of 413 students attending non-district schools. Of that amount, $1.7 million went to Duluth Public Schools Academy, or Duluth Edison.
The state auditor’s report recommends changing laws that require resident school districts to pay the entire cost. The state education department and Gov. Mark Dayton propose that the resident district and the district providing the services split the cost 90-10.
“It’s not a huge piece, but we think it’s enough for the serving school to have some skin in the game,” said Brenda Cassellius, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education.
Duluth Superintendent Bill Gronseth said Duluth Edison special education employees don’t consult with theirs on things such as individualized education programs — and, legally, they don’t have to. But other schools do, he said, and he’s hopeful that can happen with Edison.
The problem that Dayton is trying to address, said Duluth district spokeswoman Katie Kaufman, is that “if you aren’t responsible for paying for those services, you may just provide the Cadillac of services to that student.”
Karen Kennedy, executive director of Innovative Special Education Services for schools in Minnesota, disagrees with that notion.
Kennedy is the special education director for Duluth Edison schools, which enrolls 162 special education students from Duluth Independent School District 709.
“We’re making decisions based on the child’s needs, not making decisions on who is going to pay for it,” she said.
One of the cost issues involves the economies of scale. While larger charter schools like Duluth Edison can keep costs comparable to traditional public schools, Kennedy said, smaller charters might have to pay more per student to find qualified special education professionals.
Kennedy said it’s reasonable to ask school districts to share in the special education costs, but charter schools don’t have the option of seeking taxpayer money through referendums as traditional public schools can.
As for collaborating on student services, she said she respects the professionalism of the special education teams at traditional schools, and she would expect the same treatment.
“Just as Duluth would not insert themselves into an IEP (individualized education program) team in Two Harbors, it is no different with the charter school,” she said.
The auditor’s report also pointed out the issue of parents choosing one district after being denied special education services by another.
“One parent told us that he enrolled his child in a charter school because it provided one-to-one paraprofessional support denied by the resident district,” wrote James Nobles, legislative auditor.
Cassellius said the education department’s proposal also looks at ensuring people doing the evaluation of students are qualified to know what students’ needs are.
“Not in the context of giving kids less, but giving kids what’s appropriate,” she said.