mipaac post template (advocacy page) aaom calls for comprehensive special education finance reform

Autism Alliance of Michigan calls for Comprehensive Special Education Finance Reform

Southfield, Michigan (March 20, 2024) — The Autism Alliance of Michigan (AAoM) urges the legislature to overhaul how the state funds special education to ensure all students with disabilities receive the resources necessary to achieve their full potential.

AAoM is a statewide nonprofit focused on raising educational opportunities and achievement for all students with disabilities. Since 2019, AAoM has led two statewide coalitions on special education connecting cross-sector and interagency departments and leadership alongside building community with families representing the lived experience. By convening and catalyzing multiple stakeholders, AAoM is working to transform Michigan’s education system to one that is a top 10 state for special education outcomes which produces results for students with disabilities on par with their neurotypical peers.

The quality of education provided to Michigan’s students with disabilities is woefully inadequate. The poor performance of students with disabilities is driven, in large part, by the state’s insufficient and inequitable special education finance system. The recent decision to fully fund the Foundation Allowance for special education students was a welcome change. However, providing the base funding amount all students are entitled to is a step in the right direction, it is hardly meaningful special education finance reform. Moreover, current efforts to address the “funding shortfall,” the gap between special education revenues and special education costs, are designed to benefit local district general funds and not students with disabilities.

“While we support any improvement to special education funding, our students deserve more than half measures and partial solutions. Instead, Michigan must pursue comprehensive special education finance reform to build an education system worthy of our students with disabilities,” said Colleen Allen, President and CEO of the Autism Alliance of Michigan.

According to the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), more than 70 percent of students with disabilities in the state scored Below Basic in fourth grade reading, as well as in eighth grade reading and math. Aside from 13 percent in fourth grade reading, the proficiency rates for our students with disabilities languish in the single digits. Graduation rates are similarly poor. In 2021, the most recent year with available data, the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR) for Michigan’s students with disabilities was only 58 percent compared with 68 percent nationally, 73 percent in Massachusetts, and 74 percent in Texas.

The performance of students with disabilities makes clear the harm wrought by the chronic underfunding of special education. To meet our moral and constitutional obligation to students with disabilities, Michigan must pursue both revenue and expenditure reform. In other words, the state needs to change how local districts generate revenue and how their relative wealth affects their state contributions. Michigan also needs to establish new and greater expectations for the overall investment in special education so that special education students receive additional, more substantive, and higher quality resources, support, and opportunities. Revenue Reform:

  • Eliminate the local ISD tax levy cap. Local special education revenues are limited to a maximum of 1.75 times the authorization rate in 1993. This policy locks in taxing decisions and inequities made over 30 years ago and severely undercuts an ISD’s ability to raise the funds necessary to meet their students’ needs.
  • Establish a state-and local-share formula based on local wealth and income measures. This approach guards against inequities that may arise from raising the local revenue cap. Based on local wealth, the formula would determine the share of special education funding that would come from state sources and local sources. In low-wealth communities a greater share of their special education funds would come from state revenues.

Expenditure Reform:

  • Transition to a more generous weighted system. As with the Opportunity Index, this systematic approach allows the state to establish how much supplemental resources students receive based on their needs. The weights can be established by level of service, disability, or a combination of the two. The weights must be set such that the total amount of special education expenditures increases significantly from the status quo. Weighted systems are less administratively burdensome than Michigan’s current reimbursement-based structure. Moreover, applying a state-and local-share formula reduces the incentive to over-identify students since that would also raise the need for local districts to generate additional revenues themselves.
  • Create a distinct state fund to fully support students with extraordinary costs. It is difficult for ISDs, particularly in rural areas, to provide funding to support students with extraordinarily high costs. It is generally recognized as a best practice for states to create a separate fund to provide the resources required to meet the needs of students who require particularly high-cost services.
  • Establish funding distribution formula and transparency guidelines for all ISDs. The state should set out policies and practices for ISDs to ensure that funds are allocated to local districts in a manner that is consistent with the special education finance system: Align funding with student needs, as well as greater state funding to those districts with lower-wealth and fiscal capacity.

Taken together, these revenue-based and expenditure-based reforms would advance equity while completely overhauling Michigan’s special education finance system. Rather than prioritizing closing the “shortfall gap,” which principally benefits local district’s general education budgets, this proposal centers students with disabilities and is designed to ensure there are greater resources available to support their learning, growth, and development.

The Autism Alliance urges the Whitmer Administration and the legislature to take up these reforms and finally build a finance system that will make good on Michigan’s constitutional obligation to provide the educational services and programs necessary to “maximize the potential” of all students with disabilities.  

ABOUT THE AUTISM ALLIANCE OF MICHIGAN The Autism Alliance of Michigan (AAoM) is a 501(c)(3) organization and trusted ally and partner for thousands of families living with autism. AAoM’s mission is to lead efforts to raise expectations and expand opportunities for people affected by autism across their lifespan. The organization’s Education pillar drives initiatives that address systemic barriers to education, focuses on student-centered advocacy, and educates families on related topics – working towards its goal to make Michigan a top 10 state for special education outcomes. For help finding resources, providers and information contact our AAoM Navigators at 877-463-2266 (AAOM) or email navigator@aaomi.org. More information about AAoM’s Education pillar can be found at www.autismallianceofmichigan.org/education-initiatives. ###

MEDIA CONTACT  Kristi Jackson Autism Alliance of Michigan kristi.jackson@aaomi.org 248.915.6675
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