Politics & Government

Dems ask governor for special-ed funds

TOPEKA — Democratic leaders asked the governor Friday to support a budget plan that would increase funding for special education in public schools, saying Kansas could lose up to $25 million in federal aid without it.

In a letter to Gov. Sam Brownback, Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka and House Minority Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence urged Brownback to support efforts in the Senate to increase the funding in the 2011 budget. Without it, they warned, the state wouldn't meet federal requirements for matching funds.

The House did not add the money when it passed a bill to cut state spending in the current year, but a Senate committee included the money in its version of the bill.

"We suggest to you that our failure to restore these critical funds would be a penny-wise, pound-foolish decision for our state to make," the Democrats wrote.

Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said the funding shortfall for special education existed when legislators passed the current budget last year. She said Brownback isn't proposing further cutting of special education in his spending freeze but does recommend increasing special education in the 2012 budget.

"It is the necessary first step to restoring fiscal responsibility and economic growth to Kansas," she said. "If the legislative leaders who crafted the fiscal year 2011 budget now believe it is inadequate, the governor is willing to work with them on an appropriate response."

Senators will debate their budget Monday and take a final vote Tuesday. A final version reconciling House and Senate decisions will be negotiated and approved by both chambers before going to Brownback.

Davis said school districts are considering laying off teachers and eliminating extracurricular activities as a result of cuts in general aid to schools. A loss of special-education funding for mandated services would exacerbate those cuts, he said.

"To waive goodbye to federal funding is definitely a terrible message that we are sending to our school children," Davis said.

Jones-Sontag said the benchmark by which Kansas is being measured is the 2009 special education level of $427 million in state funds. The total was reduced to $367 million in 2010 and 2011 budget years.

General education funding was also reduced, but she said the cuts to special education were deeper on a percentage level, triggering potential penalties in federal funding support.

Kansas has applied for federal approval to use federal stimulus dollars to maintain special education funding levels. If the waiver is granted, the state would lose the difference between the 2009 and 2011 levels, or up to $28 million, according to the state budget office. Without the waiver, Kansas could lose $54 million, the budget office said.

She said Brownback's funding for 2012 would meet federal requirements for state contributions to special education.