A “Not Welcome” Sign for Special-Needs Students

Nonresidents denied local special education dollars in 21 ISDs

A recent Bridge Magazine headline proclaimed: “Michigan failing its special needs children, parents and studies say.” Yet the reporting remarkably omitted a key player from the conversation: intermediate school districts.

The article says that, on average, Michigan students with disabilities trail their peers in other states. Test scores are lower, dropout rates are higher, and many more special-needs students are diverted from mainstream classrooms into segregated environments.

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Bridge correctly observes that “where a child lives in Michigan can dictate what services they receive.” The state’s 56 ISDs play a prominent role in this by producing administrative plans to fund and deliver special education services in their respective regions. In seeking to address the diverse and complex needs of local schools’ disabled populations, these agencies greatly shape students’ experiences with special education.

Michigan’s ISDs can do so because they have a lot of money to spend, receiving state and federal money for special education. Together, ISDs also take in nearly a billion dollars from local special education millages.

Every ISD, which taxes local business and homeowners, has a different tax base and its own tax rates. This creates a wide gap in how much local funding an ISD has. In 2016, local special education millages collected for each special-needs student anywhere from about $1,200 to $9,700. Statewide, ISDs collect an average of $4,650 in special education tax revenue for each student who has a federally required Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

The inequity doesn’t end there. Twenty-one of the 56 administrative plans in place specifically keep local millage dollars from helping a student who attends school in the district through Schools of Choice. Washtenaw ISD collected more than $8,800 in local taxes per special education student in 2016, but families who live outside the boundary lines couldn’t see a penny of it spent for their child.

Other ISDs that send an unwelcoming message to neighboring special-needs kids cover Oakland and Macomb counties, Kalamazoo and the Traverse Bay region. In all, more than $455 million raised in ISD special education tax money can’t be used to help nonresident pupils. While one might argue that an ISD should spend the money it raises from a tax only on students who live within its boundaries, a few are even more restricting. They also deny the extra state dollars they receive to students who live across the boundary line but could use their services.

ISDs don’t have to take such a restrictive posture. In fact, most of their special education plans don’t allow a child’s home address to determine whether local tax dollars can help them.

Two other large ISDs, Ingham and Kent, occupy unique ground. In addition to serving students within their own boundaries, they also make their combined $118 million in local special education dollars available to students who live within a neighboring ISD. But their plans also govern services in five charter cyber schools that can serve students from across the state. Ingham and Kent effectively make cyber school options look less appealing for those who need special education services.

While Michigan has made strides toward more equitable student-based funding in general education, special education lags behind. It’s time to take the padlock off dollars that could help students with special needs, regardless of where they live.