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Minnesota Legislature

New special education working group gains traction

Denise Dittrich, associate director of government relations for the Minnesota School Boards Association, speaks to the House Education Innovation Policy Committee March 1 in favor of HF2846 sponsored by Rep. Drew Christensen, left.

Special education services have broad support; however, paying for those services can put school districts in a bind.  

A bill sponsored by Rep. Drew Christensen (R-Savage), would establish a working group to review special education delivery and costs in Minnesota, then develop a 10-year plan to make improvements.

The House Education Innovation Policy Committee heard and approved that bill, HF2846, Thursday. It now moves to the House Government Operations and Elections Policy Committee. The companion, SF2698, awaits action by the Senate E-12 Policy Committee. Sen. Eric Pratt (R-Prior Lake) is the sponsor. 

The bill received strong support during the hearing from several of Minnesota’s educational organizations, with advocates emphasizing the need to address cross-subsidies. These occur when districts are required to use general education revenue to pay for special education costs, often resulting in budget shortfalls.

Denise Dittrich of the Minnesota School Boards Association said her members spent the last year speaking with officials on school boards across the state, who have unanimously shared concern over the ever-rising costs of special education and the impact it’s having on their budgets. 

“With the budget that school boards have, it’s difficult to work with the per-pupil funds when it’s all eaten up by paying for special education,” Dittrich said. “Government isn’t subsidizing it like it had promised.”

While costs were a main focus of the meeting, advocates also voiced their strong support for special education services and noted that it’s not an issue of general education students versus special education students.

“In no way are we supporting reducing services that students need, but we do need to address the cross subsidy,” said Scott Croonquist, executive director for the Association of Metropolitan School Districts.

Croonquist said now is the time to act and that creating the special education working group would be a step in the right direction.

“I would suggest that we can no longer wait for action by the federal government,” he said. ”That doesn’t seem to be a winning strategy. I think that we just need to take the bull by the horn, so to speak, at the state level and create the working group to come up with a plan and to move forward with addressing this as best we can.”

Christensen emphasized that a key component of the bill is to create a legislative study group after the working group – which the legislation would require to conclude its work by January 2019 – provides its recommendations and creates the 10-year-plan.

“A lot of times I think that we’ve seen these working groups come out with recommendations that are well received but they don’t necessarily move forward through the process, so I think that putting that in the bill, that the legislative study group is recommended, is a good thing,” Christensen said

The bill received unanimous support from committee members, with the only questions or concerns revolving around which additional stakeholders should be added to the working group.

Both Rep. Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton), committee chair, and Christensen agreed that the more input the better, and that amendments may be made to the bill as it proceeds through the committee process.

“I think that this is an important conversation,” Christensen said. ”It’s important that we bring all of these groups together, they all have very important perspectives.”

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