When one takes a step back from politics and looks at the reality of sequestration, it is easy to see, if not forgive, why Congress wants to hide their heads in the sand on this issue. The truth of the matter is that the state of the education system is ugly to begin with and sequestration has only chipped in to make it even worse.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has come under fire for some statements he made about sequestration and accused of trying to make it sound worse than it really is. This week he met with superintendents of school districts that receive impact aid due to having large areas of federal land in their districts that is not subject to property taxes. Among them was Ron Walker, the superintendent from Geary County, Kansas, that serves Fort Riley. In anticipation of sequestration, Walker had to cut 100 paraprofessionals in order to make ends meet. These are mostly educators that work one on one with disabled students. Walker brought letters to Congress from 1,500 members of his community, many of them military, to undue the sequester cuts and maintain educational funding before things get even worse next school year. Secretary Duncan may have been incorrect in some of his statements last week, but that does not make the situation any less dire.
On Wednesday, the Minnesota legislature heard from an auditor on the state’s special education programs and problems. The total cost of special education in Minnesota has risen to $1.8 billion per year and accounts for around 20 percent of educational spending. Minnesota is one of only 10 states that has a growing special education population in its schools. Approximately 90 percent of the funding for special education is supposed to come from state and federal funding yet many districts are already covering over 30 percent of the cost. This will only get worse with the sequester cuts.
Minnesota has always gone beyond the minimum requirements for special education. In fact, it exceed the federal minimum on almost 75 percent of the mandated requirements. Now, in the face of shrinking budgets, the state is being forced to look into reducing some of its program elements to the federal minimum requirements in an attempt to save money. This may be necessary even if Governor Mark Dayton’s proposed budget, with its $125 million increase to special education funding, is passed.
Minnesotans are luck to live in a state that appears to have committed to education. While the state government has made some missteps, like “borrowing” from education to help balance the budget, state politicians seem to have recognized the importance of education. It can only be hoped that this direction is true and sustained as it will need to be in order to overcome the indifference coming out of Washington.