Special education funding drives debate in Wyoming House - Casper, WY Oil City News
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Special education funding drives debate in Wyoming House

Rep. Jim Roscoe (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

CASPER, Wyo. — The Wyoming House of Representatives are working on a bill which would remove a spending cap on special education in the state.

The proposed legislation sparked some debate during their Friday, Feb. 14 floor session.

House District 20 Representative Albert Sommers proposed an amendment which would maintain a cap on spending, but allow that cap to grow at a rate of 1% annually. His amendment would have also set aside $2.5 million to cover special education costs in excess of the cap.

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House District 13 Representative Cathy Connolly

“I’m against this amendment,” House District 13 Representative Cathy Connolly said. “The reason that we need to take the cap off of special ed is it honestly doesn’t make sense.”

Connolly said that legislators have a “moral obligation to meet the needs of these students.”

“The simple explanation [for my oppostion] would be that this amendment is formula driven rather than student driven,” she added. “It makes assumptions that the kid coming into the system has the same needs…as the kid coming out of the system. We should do what is right for our kids for the next year.”

She added that the House will also begin looking at recalibration of education funding which could retool how special education is funded.

“I agree with everything the minority leader said,” House District 34 Representative Tim Salazar said, referring to Connolly. “These are the most vulnerable kids in our community. We need to fully fund special education.”

House District 54 Representative Lloyd Larsen said that he was in favor of the amendment.

“When we talk special education, it is one of those things that get our hearts racing,” he said. “We [meet the needs of special education students] very well. The intent is not to deprive kids of those needs.”

“We won’t [be able to] stop the growth of special education but we have certainly got to do some things to control the growth [of spending].”

He said that the state is already providing funding to reimburse school districts for special education costs.

“This amendment does not take that away,” Larsen said.

House District 60: Representative John Freeman said that Wyoming’s special education spending has helped the state avoid litigation.

“I think it is important to realize that Wyoming is the least litigated special ed state in the nation,” he said. “I think that is because we have funded it at 100%. Our special ed providers and the school districts have been very cautious and aware of what is going on. We did cap special ed and did put a $2 million fund that would cover anything that would come up. “

“That $2 million was going to be eaten up by out of district placement. The overruns would have consumed the whole $2 million. They have to provide services for their students or they are liable to be litigated.”

Larsen said that capping special education could force districts to divert funds from other areas of their budget to cover costs in order to avoid litigation.

“I understand the reason for trying to put the cap on it,” he said, noting that he was against the amendment. “Leave it to our professionals. They haven’t abused the system.”

House District 07 Representative Sue Wilson said that about 40 years ago in the healthcare field she recalled doctors being able to bill people without anyone seriously questioning the accuracy of those billing costs.

“I’m in favor of this amendment and, frankly, I think it is great,” she said. “Thinking back 40 years ago…doctors would send in the bill and people would pay it.”

She said that since that time, insurance companies and other changes in the healthcare system have caused medical providers to find ways to provide some services at more reasonable billing rates. Wilson suggested maintaining the cap on special education funding would have a similar effect.

House District 09 Representative Landon Brown opposed the amendment saying that curbing special education funding in order to meet the state’s budget challenges was not the right approach.

“That’s not what we want to do,” Brown said. “This cap is hurting these districts. We gave the time to go in and find the efficiencies. I think we want to pass this bill as is.”

House District 01 Representative Tyler Lindholm agreed.

“This fixes things,” he said of the bill without the amendment.

House District 31 Representative Scott Clem, on the other hand, said he was in favor of the amendment.

“Imagine capping other education areas,” Clem said, saying that doing so could encourage districts to find efficiencies in other areas.

He said he didn’t expect that is something the Legislature would do.

House District 37 Representative and House Speaker Steve Harshman was in favor of removing the cap, but against the amendment.

“To give some perspective on this issue of special education, this is highly regulated,” he said.

Harshman noted that school districts are authorized to spend money in specific ways on special education based on students’ “individualized education programs.”

He also said that the percentage of special education student has hovered around 13% of the Wyoming student population for the last 20 years, saying a myth exists that there is an influx of more and more students being identified with special education needs.

The House rejected Sommers’ proposed amendment before passing the bill on second reading on Friday. They’ll need to pass the bill on one further reading in order to send it to the Senate for consideration.

Further details of the proposed legislation are available online.


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