Special education has been underfunded by the federal government for many years, according to educators, causing school districts across the nation to subsidize it through their general funds. The Duluth School Board met with U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber on Thursday to discuss the district’s unique situation.

In 2018-19, the Duluth school district spent about $930 per special education student out of its general fund, equaling more than $9.5 million of general fund money being diverted to fund special education. The state average was about $774 per special education student.

Currently, Minnesota school districts receive about 7.3% of special education funding from the federal government and Minnesota provides about 63.5% of funds, leaving districts to pick up the other nearly 30%.

Stauber is a co-sponsor of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Full Funding bill. The bill was introduced about a year ago and has been gaining co-sponsors ever since, with the most recent one signing on last week. Stauber said the idea for this bill came out of a conversation he had with U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn.

The IDEA bill would raise the amount of special education funding the federal government gives to public school districts over 10 years until it hits 40%. Stauber said this bill is important to him and Craig because they personally understand the struggles districts face while trying to fully fund special education.

“My son is at Denfeld, and to know that your child is going to be dropped off with loving, caring teachers and (paraprofessionals), you can't put a price tag on it from a parent's perspective,” Stauber said.

As for the next steps to make this bill a reality, Stauber said: “Not only do we need the Speaker of the House (Nancy Pelosi) to put it on the floor, but we also need to make sure we have a companion bill put on the Senate floor.”

Duluth school district CFO Cathy Erickson said if the federal government funded special education at 40%, it would make a huge impact on the district’s budget.

When Stauber asked the School Board and administration how much the district hasn't been able to fund or has cut due to money being diverted from its general fund to special education, their responses were many: professional development for teachers and paraprofessionals; lower class sizes; updating outdated technology; and replacing aging buses.

“Some of the things I've been disappointed by as a board member is having to cut special education services. It's not just that we are cutting from general education,” board member Alanna Oswald said. “I believe we are critically short on (paraprofessionals) and support staff because we can't afford them. We need to value every students' education and this funding gap makes it really hard to do that.”

Board member Kelly Durick Eder said her son is dyslexic and dysgraphic but doesn’t qualify for special education services, so her family has to go outside the district to get the services he needs.

“Which is fine for my family because we can afford those services, but I think about families that don't have the money and don't have the resources or the time to service their kids that don't quite qualify for special education services,” she said. “I always think about the students on the margin. It would be great to be able to serve those kids on the margin better.”

Board Chair Jill Lofald, a longtime teacher at Denfeld before she retired, said she has been disappointed with the special education funding provided by the federal and state governments.

“The federal and state governments have to step in and help us in a more human way because we're doing our job,” she said. “We want everyone to be educated to their fullest ability.”