In May 1997, MAP recommended to the State of Wyoming a "Cost-Based Block Grant" for school finance. That recommendation has subsequently been adopted. As part of its proposal, MAP recommended that the State of Wyoming eventually move towards the adoption of a modified "census-based" funding mechanism for special education. This report attempts to initiate a discussion about how such a mechanism might be implemented.
The May 1997 report noted that a specific design of a modified census-based funding mechanism for special education could not be developed until the State "implement[s] procedures that allow tracking special education specific costs to each handicapping condition. When these data are available, MAP recommends adoption of a modified, census based formula." These procedures are not yet in place, and data are not yet available by which specific historical special education costs in Wyoming can be determined. When these data are available, the Wyoming Department of Education will develop detailed proposals to implement the modified census-based recommendation. In the absence of these data, the present report makes a number of estimates and assumptions in order to illustrate what these detailed proposals might look like. The eventual proposals of the Department of Education, however, may look very different from the illustrations in this report, as they will be based on actual data.
A modified census-based special education finance system, integrated with regular education finance, should be designed to improve the outcomes of Wyoming's special education and regular education programs, and may result in reduced costs of special education as well. If realized, these reduced costs will not stem from reduced services provided to children with disabilities. Rather, they will result from the fact that the regular education program funded in the basic block grant is intended to deliver educational services in a seamless fashion, whereas some of these services were previously delivered in a separate special education program.
The elementary school prototypical model, adopted by the Wyoming Legislature and now signed into law by the Governor, included $152,514 per prototypical elementary school (or $530 per pupil in total enrollment), estimated to be the current (1995-96) average cost of special education in the state. The specific proposals to implement a special education finance system, when developed by the Wyoming Department of Education, will be a substitute, not an addition to, this current average expenditure. A modified census-based special education finance system will re-allocate this $152,514. Data eventually collected may support later recommendations to vary this initial total somewhat, although we have no present reason to believe this will be the case. For purposes of illustration, this report assumes the total will be unchanged.
Available data in Wyoming on the cost of serving students with disabilities are presently inadequate to permit certainty about the specific re-allocations recommended here. Therefore, the specific dollar figures suggested in this report should be considered as points from which a discussion, and further data gathering, can begin. On the other hand, Wyoming legislators should not expect certainty about these numbers before having to enact special education finance legislation. Therefore, when actual dollar amounts are appropriated, they should be considered as approximations, subject to revision based upon actual experience and further data collection and analysis.
This report makes a number of estimates and assumptions about the specific resources required to accommodate specific disabilities in Wyoming. In developing a modified census based special education finance system for Wyoming, the Wyoming Department of Education will revise these estimates and assumptions, based on the actual incidence of specific disabilities in Wyoming and the costs historically associated with providing accommodations for these disabilities. As with the prior proposals made by MAP for regular education, the specification of these resources will also require consultation with Wyoming special educators and with special educators in comparable regions, to assure that the resources specified can, consistent with the experience of qualified personnel, deliver the potential for adequate outcomes to Wyoming's disabled children. For purposes of illustration only, this report postulates resources that may be required to accommodate the special needs of Wyoming's disabled children. We have postulated these resources based on national literature and some national expert opinion; however, because these resources are intended to be for purposes of illustration only, we have not attempted to confirm our estimates with exhaustive national research. The purpose of this exercise is to illustrate how combinations of resources can eventually translate into a prototypical model for special education in Wyoming, similar to the prototypical model adopted by the Legislature for regular education. This report then prices these combinations of resources to show how the present $152,514 might be re-allocated in a modified census based system. Notwithstanding this illustration, the Wyoming Department of Education following further data collection and Wyoming-specific research must ultimately determine the specific re-allocation.
Using its preliminary assumptions about the accommodation of specific disabilities in Wyoming elementary schools, this report creates a tentative elementary school special education prototypical model having a total cost of $81,719 (or $284 per pupil -- all enrolled pupils). This represents MAP's estimate of the following costs that could be included, given this report's assumptions (which vary somewhat from our May 1997 report), in a district's block grant:
a) the cost of delivering the best education to disabled children whose disabilities can be appropriately accommodated at relatively low cost, and/or at relatively predictable cost because the incidence of their disabilities occurs with relatively predictable frequency in the general Wyoming school population. Often, but not necessarily always, these low cost disabilities are those considered relatively mild or sometimes moderate. However, on occasion a low cost disability can also be a severe disability, not a mild one. Given the resource assumptions and estimates made in this report, the costs of accommodating these disabilities, in the elementary school prototype, would be approximately $73,263.
b) 15 percent of the cost of delivering the best education to disabled children whose disabilities can be appropriately accommodated only at relatively high cost. For purposes of the estimates of this report, we assume such disabilities are those whose accommodation costs at least 3 times the basic regular education per pupil block grant (i.e., the existing per pupil elementary school block grant, less the ongoing special education amount included in that calculation). We estimate the costs to a district for the 15 percent share of accommodating these high cost disabilities, in the elementary school prototype, as approximately $8,456.
When the Department of Education develops a specific proposal, it may choose a different split, or to assume 100 percent responsibility for high-cost disabilities (consistent with our original recommendations), and this report discusses some of the considerations the Department may wish to consider in making this choice. This 15 percent cost assumption by districts (and an 85 percent cost assumption by the State) is modeled in this report because this 15-85 split is the one historically utilized in Wyoming.
In addition to the above illustrative amounts, incorporated into the elementary school prototype and the resulting block grant, there are additional special education funds that a modified census-based special education finance system assumes should continue to be spent by the State. Using the resource assumptions for the block grant (as described above), and holding the $152,514 total as a constant, the State of Wyoming would then spend on behalf of students in each prototypical elementary school an additional $70,795 (or $246 per pupil). This represents MAP's estimate of the following costs that would, under these assumptions, have to be spent directly by the State's Department of Education
a) 85 percent of the cost of delivering the best education to disabled children whose disabilities can be appropriately accommodated only at relatively high cost. We estimate the costs to the state of reimbursing a district for the 85 percent share of accommodating these high cost disabilities, in the elementary school prototype, as approximately $47,918.
b) a catastrophic reserve fund of $22,877, equal to 15 percent of the total special education appropriation of $152,514. The Department of Education's proposal will probably entail using such a reserve fund to reimburse those districts that experience extraordinary special education costs that cannot reasonably be covered by the 15 percent district share of the cost of high-cost accommodations. This extraordinary experience can result either from a much greater frequency of disability or from the need to accommodate unusually expensive disabilities. In dispensing this reserve fund, the State should also expect that districts experiencing such extraordinary costs may, in the past, have experienced lower than expected costs and so should prudently have established their own reserve funds with the 15 percent share included in their block grants.
Because the State does not presently have data from which we can calculate an estimate of the cost of serving children with high-cost accommodations, a cost unaffected by the estimates contained in this report, we cannot say with full confidence whether the reserve fund described above will be sufficient to meet future special education needs. And because the data on required resources, developed for purposes of illustration in this report, for lower-cost disabilities depend, for their most effective implementation, on a thorough staff development program for regular and special education teachers, and on an aggressive early intervention program, we cannot say with full confidence whether it will be possible, in the near future, to accommodate lower-cost disabilities with fewer funds than those described in this report. We anticipate, however, that the net effect of polices like those illustrated in this report would be to reduce the total cost of special education in Wyoming. Several of the policies described in this report, if implemented, should result in reduced costs and improved services, but without data on the current cost of serving children with specific disabilities, we cannot say for certain what the net effect on costs might be.
While there is reason to believe that the policies illustrated in this report have the potential to reduce the cost of special education in Wyoming, the primary purpose of these policies is not to reduce expenditures, but rather to assist the State of Wyoming to more effectively deliver its basket of educational goods and services to children with disabilities. Because it reinforces the practice of serving children with low-cost disabilities in regular classes; provides incentives for early intervention (which may ultimately result in fewer referrals to special education, as well as fewer retentions of regular students); and funds the development of improved teacher capacity, the modified census-based special education finance system that the Wyoming Department of Education plans to develop is a system primarily designed to improve Wyoming's educational outcomes.
Whatever recommendations are developed by the Department of Education for the specific resources to be funded in a prototype underlying a modified census based system cannot be finally adopted without extensive deliberation by Wyoming policymakers, including consultation with Wyoming regular and special educators. Input from Wyoming educators, regarding the feasibility of these census based policies, should be solicited as part of this deliberative process. Such input could result in substantial modification of the policies described in this report.
The policies described in this report assume that the state's educators, with leadership coming from the State itself, are participating in an ongoing professional development program for Wyoming teachers and school administrators, anticipated in the May 1997 proposal. An important purpose of this professional development program should be to ensure that Wyoming educators have the capacity to take advantage of the regular education small class sizes and other resources, described in the prototypical models of the May 1997 report, to improve regular education instruction so that it can successfully deliver the legislatively mandated basket of educational services.
This report suggests that a modified census based special education finance system will likely include an increase in the block grant for Wyoming school districts for the purpose of expanding this professional development program to cover the capacity to accommodate as many children with low-cost disabilities in regular classrooms as possible, and to deliver the basket to these children in as integrated a setting as may be appropriate. As a rough estimate, we assume that approximately 2/3 or more of the children presently identified as eligible for special education services in Wyoming can be primarily served in regular classrooms with a properly trained instructional staff and with the resources provided by the block grant. Many of these children may already be so served, in accordance with current Wyoming educational practice. However, an examination of regional data suggests that there is further room for improvement in the placement of mildly disabled children in the more appropriate and less costly setting of regular classrooms.
This report anticipates that, as part of a modified census-based special education finance system, the Department of Education will recommend an increase in the block grant for Wyoming school districts to support a regular education "pre-referral intervention" program. Such a program would be designed by school districts to remediate, where possible, learning difficulties prior to children being referred for special education. If intervention comes early in a child's school life, this program has the potential to reduce, over time, the number of children identified for special education.
This report also anticipates that the Department of Education's proposal will include an increase in the block grant for Wyoming school districts to support the assessment and evaluation of all children (mildly, moderately and severely disabled) who are referred for special education, whether or not their disabilities lend themselves to lower cost accommodations in regular classrooms.
To support the accommodation of 2/3 or more of the children presently identified as needing special education (i.e., the 2/3 or more whose disabilities are lower in cost), this report assumes that the Department of Education's eventual proposal will include an increase in the block grant for Wyoming school districts to provide additional resource specialist teachers to assist in the process of accommodating particular disabilities. These special education resource teachers would be in addition to the regular education resource teacher already funded in the regular education elementary block grant.
As noted, policies like those described in this report, incorporating the estimates and assumptions described below, would result in an increase in the block grant for a prototypical elementary school of $81,719, or $284 dollars per pupil (i.e., per each of the 288 total pupils in a prototypical elementary school). Because this report is intended only to begin a discussion with illustrative material, it does not attempt to illustrate how the prototype models for middle or high schools might be modified if a modified census-based special education block grant were added. These illustrated prototypical elementary school amounts are intended to substitute for part of the $152,514 (or $530 per pupil) which a prototypical elementary school presently spends for special education (the balance being made up of the state's presumed 85 percent share of providing accommodations for high-cost disabilities and its catastrophic reserve fund).
The illustration in this report of a modified census-based special education block grant does not include funds for district special education administration, because all administrative costs, including special education administrative costs, were already funded in the basic block grant proposed in May 1997.
This report describes a "modified" census-based special education program, "modified" because MAP did not, in May 1997, recommend that services for high-cost disabled children be funded exclusively from the block grant to districts. High cost (often seriously) disabled children are those who cannot be accommodated without specific additional resources provided (like attendant aides, for example). As noted, we assume, for purposes of this report, that the state will reimburse 85 percent of the cost of accommodating these children, and, if this causes unavoidable hardship, a greater than 85 percent share (to be paid out of the catastrophic reserve fund). While we do not necessarily anticipate this occurring, it is conceivable that cases could also arise where an unusual incidence of low-cost disabilities would be a basis for funding additional resources from the state's reserve fund.
When a fully specified modified census-based special education finance system is developed and implemented, there will be many borderline decisions about whether a particular child should receive services provided by a school district out of its block grant or whether the child should receive services for which the State partially reimburses the district. These borderline decisions will become more difficult if the State does not have very clear guidelines about which costs should be included in calculations to determine whether the total cost of accommodating a particular child's disability is equal to at least 3 times (or 4 times) the basic regular education per pupil block grant. Because the State will have to monitor these decisions, it may be advisable for the State to increase its capacity for special education administration at the state level. This increased capacity could include both accounting personnel, and specialists to advise district personnel in the conduct of conferences to design individualized education programs (IEPs). This report does not examine further specifically whether, or how, this capacity should be increased.
This report illustrates how the $152,514 currently (i.e., 1995-96) allocated to a prototypical elementary school for elementary education might be reallocated under a modified census-based special education finance system. The illustration of this report is designed to show that, with such a re-allocation, the existing $152,514 can reasonably purchase resources adequate to deliver the best education to Wyoming's children with disabilities. Indeed, when the resources purchased with the regular education and the special education block grants are blended, it is possible that Wyoming will find that the resources presently provided exceed those needed to provide the best education, especially if aggressive early intervention reduces the number of children whose learning disabilities are permitted to grow into disabilities ever more expensive to remediate or accommodate.