Most local special education funding in Michigan favors school districts over disabled students. These kids can’t enjoy the benefit of our Schools of Choice law because most local millage funds used to finance special education are padlocked away by a few local school administrators.
These local administrators are housed within intermediate school districts, which were created in the 1960s to help special education students, among other things. Officials erected boundaries so districts knew which students they were responsible for. In recent years, ISDs have taken advantage of those boundaries to wall off students who need their services and who happen to live outside of those boundaries.
While one (significant) source of income for ISDs may come through local taxpayer dollars, those funds should be available to students outside that locale. Taxpayers needn’t worry that they’re giving money to a cause they reap no benefit from; students may end up working within the boundaries of an ISD that didn’t educate them, or they move from one ISD to another. Besides, there is little reason to think that a special education student living in one ZIP code is entitled to more taxpayer money than a student living in a different one. Rather, if there is money available for special education, that money must not be restricted from accomplishing what it is meant to accomplish: the education of Michigan children with disabilities.
But our law currently allows administrators to limit the impact of locally generated special education dollars. Nearly half of Michigan’s 56 ISDs hoard cash by refusing to spend local millage dollars on disabled students who live just outside their invisible walls. The chances of a disabled student being blocked from a nearby ISD are nearly 50%.
If money is the reason for imposing restrictions, it’s not because ISDs lack it; they raised over $1 billion in property taxes last year. About 60% of those funds are effectively sealed inside the ISD that levied the millage.
Take Traverse Bay Area ISD, for example. It says that no millage funds can be spent on a nonresident student. In 2020, the ISD raised about $8,883 per student from its millage. When disabled children from neighboring Manistee ISD — which collects $6,700 per pupil less — want to enroll in the Traverse Bay Area ISD, they can’t, even if a school within it wants to take them. By restricting millage revenues to residents, the Traverse Bay Area ISD locks away its cash from special education students who could use its help.
One may wonder why an ISD would refuse to pay for the education of a disabled child, resident or not, especially since it was created to take care of them. While one can hardly find any information about a millage besides the date of its renewal, ISDs do publish how much they raise from each millage. And that information shows a clear distinction between districts that restrict millage funds and those that don’t. Restrictive ISDs generate from their property tax levies an average of $5,845 for each special-needs student. Nonrestrictive districts, by contrast, have only $4,473 from their levies to spend per student. That’s a difference of nearly $1,400.
Over 100,000 of the state’s special needs students — just under half — are locked out of restrictive districts. Multiplying that population by $1,400 yields nearly $140 million that is potentially shut off from students who live just outside the borders of restrictive districts.
Senate Bill 410 would take a step toward restoring special education funding to its purpose. Not only does the proposed law ensure all special needs pupils could enroll in any ISD near them, but the legislation also guarantees funding will follow the student, disabled or not. In effect, SB 410 hands the keys to funding to special education families, who are already strapped for options.
The bill does not propose an untested approach. A few of the highest-funded ISDs already open their treasury to nonresident students, including Huron ISD, Ottawa Area ISD and the Livingston Educational Service Agency. SB 410 only calls for a change that most intermediate school districts already embrace.
Let’s take the padlock off special education funding so it can do what it’s meant to do: help meet the needs of students with disabilities, regardless of where they live.
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