After 30 years of special education funding limits, NC parents want change
In 1993, North Carolina put a cap on how much it was willing to spend on students with disabilities. Three decades and a landmark lawsuit later, the cap is still there, leaving out thousands of students and tens of millions of dollars each year.Posted — Updated
For years, Susan Book’s daily routine was interrupted by the same phone call.
Administrators at her son Emerson’s school would say he couldn’t handle school today. Could she come pick him up?
One day when Emerson was in third grade, she received the call, gathered her car keys and headed to school, to pick him up early.
When she arrived, she witnessed Emerson being dragged down a hallway. Emerson is on the autism spectrum. He had just had a meltdown in class, she said.
“I could hear him screaming,” Book said. “As a mother, you don’t forget that.”
She took him home. A place he’d say he never wanted to leave again — not if it meant going back to school. He stopped reading books. His mood sunk. He lost confidence.
Called “push outs,” they are voluntary and don’t go down as official suspensions. They’re absences that, over time, can become excessive and amount to learning loss, or a slowed pace of learning because of time away from the classroom.
Learning loss for students with disability-related behavioral challenges has persisted for years, since before the COVID-19 pandemic lifted the term into common vernacular.
Emerson, who calls himself a bookworm and loves science felt “traumatized” and too distracted to learn. “I always wanted to go home,” he said.
As North Carolina faces legal obligations to improve its public schools and student success, data show the state’s students with disabilities are falling further behind their nondisabled peers and further behind students with disabilities across the nation.
Families and educators describe an under-resourced system and too few educators who are sufficiently trained or knowledgeable in how to work with students with certain disabilities.
Many families of students with disabilities contend that services are inadequate, staffing is lacking, and schools are often not prepared to provide the curriculum, support or therapy their children need. They describe vastly different experiences school-to-school.
Teachers describe insufficient resources, inappropriate discipline practices and disparities between students whose families can afford extra therapeutic services outside of school and students whose families cannot.
A funding cap
The North Carolina Constitution promises a “sound basic education,” according to a 1997 state Supreme Court ruling in the still-ongoing education adequacy case Hoke County Board of Education, et. al v. State of North Carolina. And rulings in the case have since found that schools statewide aren’t meeting that standard.
Outside of the plan, researchers have for years urged lawmakers to change the funding formula for students with disabilities. In 1994 — the year Leandro was filed and a year after lawmakers capped funding for students with disabilities — a report to the General Assembly estimated the cost of educating students with disabilities was likely 2.3 times the cost of educating students without disabilities. North Carolina’s funding was, and remains, far below that. During the 2021-22 school year, average spending per student in special education was 1.5 times as much as the average per-student spending, with or without disabilities.
The formula hasn’t changed much since 1994, and the cap has only been slightly raised.
Currently, North Carolina distributes $4,600 per student with a disability, no matter the disability and funding capacity of the school system, to each school system until it reaches the funding cap of no more than 13% of the system’s students. Most school systems are over that cap.
North Carolina officials are once again mulling making major modifications to how the state funds education for students with disabilities through an ongoing study of funding based on the cost of services. It’s unclear how or whether the North Carolina General Assembly will make significant changes to the state’s funding formula. The state, including the General Assembly, has commissioned studies several times before.
About 13% of North Carolina’s more than 1.5 million public school students are enrolled in special education for a disability. That’s about 200,000 students most years, although the number has declined by several thousand students since the COVID-19 pandemic paused in-person schooling and resulted in broader academic challenges. State dispute resolution records show the state has seen an increase in complaints — and findings of noncompliance — since the start of the pandemic, including many accusing schools of not conducting evaluations for special education eligibility.) Put another way: In a typical classroom, two to four of the students would need assistance and accommodations to help them learn. One of them may not be able to regularly learn in that classroom because of their disability. The assistance and accommodations are deemed necessary by federal law, and their implementation can carry the weight of a lawsuit.
Susan Book fought for years to get Emerson into, and keep him in, a general education classroom. Emerson doesn’t have an intellectual disability. He’s interested in robotics. He’s known for his winning UNO strategies. His memory of Super Bowl commercials, viewed again and again on his parents’ old VHS tapes, is endless and photographic.
Emerson has delayed executive functioning skills. He’s needed extra work on social skills, managing everyday tasks and controlling his strong reactions to stressors. He does have a communication barrier — dysgraphia, in which he struggles to translate his thoughts into written words, on paper.
These are all reasons why Book said he’s needed a one-on-one aide — someone who can help remind him of what he’s learned in therapies and help him write. When those challenges are at bay, he can learn anything.
Book estimates Emerson missed dozens of days of school in third grade.
“I wouldn't be surprised if it added up to… an entire semester,” she said.
Test score gap, suspensions
North Carolina’s students with disabilities are hurting academically and more so than their peers in other states.
The test score gap between North Carolina’s students with disabilities and those without disabilities is bigger than the gap nationally, according to federal fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math test data.
Reading scores for students with disabilities are worse in North Carolina than they are nationally. Math scores for students with disabilities began dropping in North Carolina even before the pandemic.
North Carolina has at times struggled to meet expectations for its special education programming. The U.S. Department of Education currently considers North Carolina “in need of assistance” with implementing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the 1975 federal law that promises students with disabilities access to a “free appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment.” The state has landed the “in need of assistance” designation during the past two years.
That report, which was conducted during a regular monitoring cycle, partly concerned complaints by organizations of advocates and parents who contend schools haven’t been providing special education services to enough students with dyslexia, nor providing those students with an appropriate reading curriculum. Some group members say they spent tens of thousands of their own dollars on private tutoring or private schooling instead.
The state also reported 55 school systems disproportionately identified students in certain disability categories by race or ethnicity and that nine of those districts were using “inappropriate identification.”
When it comes to educating students with disabilities, many people in and adjacent to special education describe inadequate resources, high staff turnover and, sometimes, insufficient knowledge to work with the students.
Moving past 1975
Peggy Nicholson, supervising attorney at the Duke University Children’s Law Clinic, said a lot of the teachers working with students with disabilities are long-term substitutes who may not have much training or a background in special education. That means they may not know how to address certain disabilities, find developmentally appropriate activities or track and monitor student progress, Nicholson said.
“We'll get IEPs [individualized education programs], where the child's goals have been the same year after year after year,” Nicholson said. “There's no data to support what their goals should be. And the school's like, ‘Well, we just we don't know how to evaluate the student or we don't have the staff; there's been a lot of staff turnover.’”
IEPs are personal plans designed for every student officially enrolled in special education, required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The plans list goals and services needed to attain those goals. The plans cannot simply be a wishlist of resources for a student; rather, they must provide a student with access to a “free, appropriate public education.” They’re the result of negotiations between parents and the school, updated at least once per year, about what the student should learn and what they need to help them be able to learn. The plans are legally binding, and schools that don’t follow them can be subject to corrective action and heightened oversight.
Negotiating the plans has spawned a field of advocates, whose full-time jobs are to help families know the law and their rights and attend IEP meetings with them. Many others train to be volunteer advocates.
Patricia Doyle was the mother of a daughter with a disability before she opened up a practice. Moving from New Hampshire, where her daughter attended a special school, to North Carolina was a rough transition for her daughter in the 2000s.
North Carolina did not have special public schools equipped for educating children with disabilities, though Doyle was open to her daughter attending a traditional school with accommodations.
“That just did not work at all,” Doyle said. “What I realized is that in many ways North Carolina has not moved past 1975 when it comes to the law. They still don't really understand inclusion, how to have kids with disabilities in regular classrooms, whether that's modifying the work, or providing more support.”
Students with dyslexia, for example, are often not given curriculum proven to work for their unique reading challenges, she said. Increasingly, she observed, schools she’s working with are trying to reduce the number of days students would receive specialized therapies, such as occupational therapy.
Doyle’s daughter Liz, who has an intellectual disability, attended a special school in New Hampshire for students with disabilities where her English class read novels. When she moved to North Carolina, she was eventually forced into a self-contained special education classroom where she didn’t read novels at all. Last year, Doyle and her family moved to Massachusetts so her daughter could get into a government program that would help her train for and obtain a job. Before she obtains a job, she can participate in day programs.
A similar program in North Carolina had a waitlist, and Liz would have had to wait more than a decade — until she was about 30 years old — to participate in it.
“I wasn't going to wait until she's 30,” Doyle said. “And she wants to be independent. She wants to live on her own.”
‘It’s all just arbitrary’
The bulk of funding for students with IEPs comes from state government, despite Congress’ promise decades ago to fund the requirements of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Congress’ funding formula for the law calls for nearly $40 billion, but Congress funds just about $13 billion instead. In North Carolina, Congress provided about $363.4 million toward students with IEPs last school year. The North Carolina General Assembly spent $867 million. Local school system spending data don’t break down special education costs.
Absent full funding from Congress, the onus to serve students with disabilities, in North Carolina, falls at the state’s feet.
And for decades, researchers hired by state agencies and lawmakers have urged the North Carolina General Assembly to change how it funds services for students with IEPs.
WRAL News found studies or references to state-commissioned or state-conducted studies from 1990, 1994, 2010, 2016, 2019 and 2022 — all suggesting the state, at the very least, should drastically increase its funding per student with a disability or apportion the funding by taking the disability into account. The North Carolina General Assembly, under either Democratic or Republican leadership, has never implemented those suggestions.
Ultimately, the state and plaintiffs in the Leandro lawsuit agreed to a plan in 2021 to boost spending per student with a disability to 2.3 times the cost of educating the average North Carolina student — the same recommendation made in 1994.
Funding increases for students with disabilities have largely been to cover the higher cost of paying teaching salaries and benefits, said Kris Nordstrom, a former researcher with the state legislature. Nordstrom is now an advocate for implementing the plan agreed to in the Leandro lawsuit.
Current funding is not based on the cost to achieve certain outcomes, Nordstrom said.
“It’s all just arbitrary,” he said.
The state’s current model has existed since the year before the Leandro lawsuit was filed.
In 1993, the North Carolina General Assembly placed a cap on funding for students with disabilities to prevent over-identification of students with disabilities. That was shortly after Congress reauthorized the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and added eligible disability categories. North Carolina had already been using those disability categories, but identification of them grew as diagnoses per revised medical manuals grew, as well. Diagnoses of autism, in particular, have grown as the definition of it has expanded to a spectrum of signs and severities.
North Carolina also caps funding for English-language learners and academically and intellectually gifted (AIG) students – with AIG students identified at rates several times the cap of 4% of students.
The students with disabilities cap is a percentage — 13% this year — of the previous year’s enrollment. In April 2022, the state’s school districts and charter schools collectively identified 13.4% of their students for special education.
North Carolina provides a flat dollar amount for each student with disabilities, regardless of their disability or the school system they attend, up to the level of the cap. The money isn’t based on the cost of services. It doesn’t stick with each student; rather, the funds are totaled up for each school system and then distributed, and school systems spend the pot as they see fit and according to the rules the state has placed on the funds. The funds don’t adjust for school systems that may have more students with higher-cost accommodations or for school systems that, based on the cost of services in their area, may need more or less money.
“That's been a constant issue since I've started practicing in rural counties,” Nicholson said. Costs can vary widely, district to district, she said. The scalability of cost and availability of services can be hindrances for schools, especially those in rural areas.
Educating students with disabilities costs more than students without disabilities — namely, to provide the services required to accommodate them — and it fluctuates based on how many students in a school system are enrolled in special education, according to researchers. The per-student cost isn’t typically very high when the share of students enrolled in special education is relatively low. Per-student costs go up when that share rises to a level most school systems report having. In 1995, the state funded about 7,500 fewer students (about 5.4%) than were enrolled in special education, resulting in about $11.5 million (about 4.3%) less funding than if all students with disabilities had been funded at the per-student amount.
This past school year, it worked out to about 18,000 fewer students than were enrolled and $82.5 million less, or about 9% fewer students and 9% less funding.
However, the effective per-pupil expenditure has surpassed the inflation rate since July 1994 — the beginning of the 1995 fiscal year. It’s risen, in raw dollars, from about $1,873 per student to about $4,446 per student, or, July 2021 figures, from about $3,446 to $4,446.
But some new funding sources are coming from outside of the state.
Schools are increasingly turning to Medicaid to pay for health services at school. In 2008, Medicaid reimbursed North Carolina schools just $16 million. Nowadays, annual Medicaid reimbursements to schools regularly top $100 million, federal data show. Those services include care for students who do not have disabilities and do not have IEPs.
The most recent funding study, conducted by RTI International last year, urged the state Department of Public Instruction to work with schools to apply more often for Medicaid reimbursements to pay for services for students with IEPs.
‘I was losing my hair in chunks’
When Janaire Robinson’s son Josiah wasn’t getting the services he needed, she and Halifax County Schools signed an agreement. After years of back-and-forth between Robinson and the school system, the school system would now pay more than $22,000 per year to send Josiah to a private school in Durham, an hour and a half away.
Hope Creek Academy is a small school with much smaller student-to-teacher ratios than his public school. It’s designed for students who need more structure and less stress in their environments.
Josiah has autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Robinson stressed for years that Josiah needed to be in a smaller classroom or have an aide and needed more than a self-contained special education classroom. Robinson agreed to individualized education programs that included learning devices, extra one-on-one lessons, occupational therapy and other services.
Robinson, herself a special education director at a school in Virginia, filed several complaints to the state against Halifax County Schools. The state sided with her on some counts and the school on some counts, finding fault with the school system in at least three investigations. The state faulted the school system for procedural issues and failure to provide certain services agreed to.
As Robinson tells it, the issues involving Josiah had more than one cause. She said the school lacked staff to provide some services, either because of turnover or because they didn’t have the money for an aide or to reduce class sizes. She was also concerned about how much educators knew about working with children with certain challenges. Josiah often acted out and was removed from classrooms. He was restrained and secluded, and the school often didn’t inform Robinson of it. He performed well below grade level, despite not having an intellectual disability.
“He was not reading,” Robinson said. “He was full of a lot of anger.”
Josiah didn’t fit into his two options in Halifax County Schools: A traditional classroom setting, without an aide, or a self-contained special education classroom.
“Josiah’s cognitive ability was too high for that … self-contained classroom. And he was overstimulated in a traditional classroom setting,” Robinson said.
Hope Creek Academy helped Josiah receive more attention, advance much closer to grade level and learn some of the skills he needed to be successful, Robinson said.
But it wasn’t a permanent solution in Robinson’s mind. As Josiah got older, she wanted him to interact with more children his age, back home in Halifax County. Plus, the private school was struggling with staffing.
After three years at the tiny Durham private school, Robinson decided to send him back to Halifax County Schools.
Josiah wasn’t happy about it, Robinson said. He didn’t feel safe. But Robinson was hopeful and liked his fifth grade teacher when she met him.
So far, the results have been mixed.
Josiah now has some friends his age, which is what Robinson wanted.
“It was a little tough for him,” she said. “In the beginning, he stayed to himself. He wore a coat like it was kind of a protective shield. And he still wears the coat every day in school, despite how hot or cold it is, you're going to wear that coat. But now the hood is down … so you can see that he sort of feels comfortable. He's made a few friends. He wanted to go to a dance that they had at school.”
She went to the dance with him. He didn’t dance, but he had fun.
When he’s overwhelmed by the workload or the changing classroom environment, Josiah goes to a designated quiet place to calm down, a skill he learned at Hope Creek Academy.
But Robinson isn’t sure Josiah is getting much of an education. He often refuses his one-on-one lessons because he doesn’t want to leave the classroom, so the school has now agreed to find him a one-on-one aide. Some of his classes are without a permanent teacher.
“I feel like it's hindering the progress of all the students,” Robinson said. “If you don't have a licensed person in front of you to deliver that instruction, then they're not going to get what they need.”
Turnover and vacancies among special education teachers has always been high. North Carolina has for decades listed them in federal “teacher shortage area” reports, even when few other types of teachers were also listed. In the fall of 2021 — the latest year for which data are available — North Carolina public school systems reported 616 special education teacher positions that were either not filled by a full-time employee or filled by someone who didn’t meet the qualifications to hold the position. That number is equivalent to about one in four North Carolina schools, and it’s growing most years.
In conversations with WRAL News and in public and private forums, special education teachers describe large caseloads of students, with some resource teachers having 20 students to 40 students alone.
Teachers in self-contained classrooms — meaning they are for special education students only and include about a dozen students per classroom — described challenges with their students having widely varying skill levels.
After just a few years, some quit, feeling demoralized.
Taylor Cordes, who taught at a Wake County Public School System high school, quit after three years.
Cordes didn’t have a planning period and sometimes had so much paperwork she had to sacrifice some instructional time to do it. She spent about $1,000 of her own money on classroom supplies in her three years of teaching, for things like rolls of Velcro, a color printer, ink, paper and other hands-on learning materials.
“I quickly burned out,” she said. “I was stressed.”
Her students didn’t get to take electives. An art teacher eventually sacrificed her planning period to teach art to Cordes’s class. It was on the ground-level floor, however, so on days when the elevator wasn’t working, the class — which included children with physical disabilities — couldn’t go.
“I know that the things that I experienced are definitely not unique to Wake County in North Carolina,” Cordes said. “We are failing to support our students with disabilities. And I mean, if you look at the data, their graduation rates are much lower, they're much lower their discipline. And like suspension rates are much higher.”
When she was a student teacher in Wilmington, students were unable to receive speech therapy because the school didn’t have a speech-language pathologist at one point. Students who needed the services eventually had to come to school during the summer to make up for their lost services.
Cordes and her college classmate, McKenna Nelson, both quit after dreaming of being teachers since they were in grade school.
Nelson knew she wanted to be a teacher at a young age and settled on educating students with disabilities when she was a teenager. She volunteered at a shelter for children who had suffered abuse and found helping the children fulfilling. She asked shelter management for career advice, and they suggested, without hesitation, that she go into special education.
“Everything just kind of fell into place,” Nelson said. She enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington — which has one of the state’s largest education schools — and met Cordes and others in her cohort.
“We were all really passionate about teaching, and I thought that a lot of us would be doing teaching for forever,” Nelson said.
After three years teaching at three different schools in Wake County, a corporate recruiter contacted her on LinkedIn about jobs in software sales. Nelson took one and has already been promoted to an account manager, doesn’t have to work three jobs any longer and earns more money than she used to while working fewer hours.
She also no longer has to spend her own money on classroom supplies. She thinks she spent hundreds of dollars on supplies in her three years of teaching.
“I still have that same passion,” Nelson said. “I love any chance I get to interact with people with disabilities because that's just my happy place.”
Her father’s hospice nurse brought her son with Down syndrome to the hospital recently, and Nelson was excited to interact with him. “And that was the most joy I felt in a long time.”
She added: “That made me miss education a lot.”
People often ask Nelson why she left.
“My stress level was so high, I was losing hair in chunks, every time I would shower,” Nelson said. “My family saw it, and my friends saw it. It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, leaving teaching.”
She’d love to be a teacher again, but it doesn’t make sense for her financially or for her own health. She doesn’t think about returning much.
“I did not have the resources to be able to teach my students effectively,” Nelson said. “… There wasn’t enough support for me as a teacher, as a special education teacher.”
General education teachers often weren’t prepared to help, either, Cordes said. They took one class in college on students with disabilities and learned the legal requirements, but they didn’t necessarily learn how to address specific disabilities. Students with disabilities are more likely to be in general education classrooms than self-contained classrooms, but their teachers in the general education classrooms likely only took one college class on students with disabilities.
“I did two years really focused on special education, and … I didn't learn enough,” Cordes said.
Different schools, different experiences
Susan Book’s son, Emerson, went to two elementary schools before he settled into the right one.
Book describes all three schools — all within the Wake County Public School System — very differently. One had an administration that Book says didn’t adequately understand autism spectrum disorder or Emerson’s disability. Another had an administration that did, but didn’t have the resources to keep Emerson in a general education classroom. The third one — Root Elementary — had an understanding administration and the benefit of generous private donors. Emerson had needed more adult attention, and Root Elementary was able to pay for additional staff for the school through a private foundation. Emerson still needed a one-on-one aide, Book said, but the teaching assistants were also able to help him there.
Emerson said he learned a lot there, compared with his first schools.
He was able to attend Wright School, a state-run largely residential school for children with behavioral or emotional struggles, for the spring 2022 semester. There, he learned time and space management skills and deep-breathing techniques to help him calm down.
Now in his first full year at Reedy Creek Middle School, Emerson has a full-time aide for the first time ever. Before the school year even started, the boy who once refused to go to school said he was looking forward to it. “Happy” is how he said it made him feel.
Now that the school year has started, he’s enjoying English and robotics, and his aide helps him write and reminds him of the skills he’s learned to help him manage his stress. He asks his mom to read his chapter books with him so they can talk about them.
“He is doing everything that we expected him to be able to do,” Book said. “We're really, really happy.”
The way Book sees it, schools need more money for resources and more training to make sure students like Emerson can learn. Book credits having a special education advocate with helping Emerson succeed, pushing for more accommodations, something she knows other families can’t afford.
That’s when Emerson’s fortune began to turn, after a tumultuous third grade year.
After transferring to Root Elementary, Emerson received more attention.
Soon after, he started reading again, for fun, at home.
How other states limit special education funding
- Oregon caps funding eligibility at 11% of enrolled students. Its funding per student, however, is much higher than North Carolina’s. Oregon doubles its per-student funding for each student with a disability, up to that cap. North Carolina provides less than that, at about 162% of its per pupil spending of state funds.
- Washington almost doubles the funding for each student with a disability, up to a cap of 13.5% of enrollment.
- Nevada caps funding at 13% of enrollment. How it pays per student is not written in statute. Nevada’s schools are largely locally funded.
- Utah caps funding at 12.18% of enrollment but provides more per student than in North Carolina. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Utah provides $8,000 per student with a disability.
Changes recommended by different studies
- A 1990 study suggested the cost of educating each student with a disability was twice the cost of educating students without a disability.
- A 1994 study suggested funding each student with an IEP at 2.3 times the amount of students without IEPs. That was based on how much other states were spending, rather than the actual cost of providing the likely needed services.
- A 2010 state-commissioned report by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates Inc., a Denver-based education consulting firm, recommended the state fund students with disabilities based on the severity of the disability.
- A 2016 report by the North Carolina General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division argued that students with disabilities are not evenly distributed across North Carolina, and the funding cap hinders districts with more students with disabilities from serving them. “Caps such as North Carolina’s represent one way states have sought to disincentivize overidentification of students,” the report said. “However, the same caps also can serve to disincentivize the identification of students with disabilities who would benefit from the provision of services that are costly to [school districts].” The report also faulted the state for assuming for not accounting to the widely varying cost of educating each student with a disability.
- A 2019 study by WestEd, the Learning Policy Institute and North Carolina State University’s Friday Institute recommended increasing the funding cap for students with disabilities.
- A 2022 study by RTI International, commissioned by the state, suggested the state create a system that would designate funding based on students’ needs, which could be estimated more simply by sorting the students’ disability categories and/or grouping the severity of the students’ disabilities into different funding tiers.
Critics of Leandro ruling hope new GOP majority on NC Supreme Court will reconsider money directed to public schools
After years of unprecedented shortages, are teachers prepared for North Carolina's ambitious education goals?
Copyright 2023 by Capitol Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.