A bill that proposes the legally mandated inflationary increase for Montana K-12 public education has already been signed into law.
The overwhelming vote for House Bill 159, sponsored by Rep. Bruce Grubbs, R-Bozeman, shows that public education has bipartisan support. But the congratulatory announcements of the bill passing in the first half of the session should be tempered by the knowledge of what HB159 left out.
Gov. Steve Bullock's budget included an inflationary increase for special education — for the first time ever. But HB159 proposes not a single dollar more for special education. Of course, there will still be increased costs as insurance premiums, salaries, utilities and other costs rise. Our local school district taxpayers will bear those increased expenses.
Your local school district is required by state and federal law to provide special education for eligible students. But neither the state nor the federal government covers anything close to the full cost of their mandates. It's important that local schools meet students' special needs, so each child can reach his full potential. About 10 percent of all students receive some special education services, which can range from a weekly speech therapy session to all-day individual care attendants and nurse services in a self-contained classroom.
It would cost $400,000 next school year for special education to get the same inflationary increase as regular education, and about $800,000 the second year of the biennium. Without those updates, special education will continue to draw more funds away from regular education as schools struggle to meet the needs of all students.
Montana is one of only two states that doesn't fund public education for students with severe disabilities to age 21. The House voted last week to partially change that policy by including certain students with disabilities in the state funding calculation. House Bill 298, sponsored by Christopher Pope, D-Bozeman, is expected to apply to about 25 students per year statewide and to cost the state about $140,000. The bill passed the House on a vote of 85-14 with Democrats and most Republicans voting in favor.
In a House Education Committee hearing, a Bozeman teacher and mother representing Down Syndrome Research Education and Advocacy told legislators: "The parents we talk to of young adults with developmental disabilities often say that the years following high school were like dropping off a cliff."
About 1,600 Montanans with developmental disabilities are on waiting lists for services that are capped by the state budget, according to information presented to the Legislature earlier this year. Some folks wait years for job training, supported employment, a group home or transportation.
Great Falls public schools already keeps special education students in school till age 21 if that's what their individual educational plan requires. Great Falls teaches these young people life, job and social skills and graduates five to 10 from the program annually.
Students with disabilities often need to learn at their own pace; they may need more time and extra support to reach their full potential. Helping every student be the best she can be should be the goal for all our Montana students.
The Senate should send HB298 to the governor's desk to allow students with disabilities to complete their education.
HB159 doesn't actually appropriate money, so it still must be includes in the major budget bill, House Bill 2. The lawmakers who boast of passing HB159 should not leave special education behind. Now that nearly every lawmaker has voted for funding K-12 education, they need to actually appropriate the money for the entire system — including doing right by our special education students.