Delaware Public Media

Increases in special education enrollment driving state education spending

Feb 8, 2018

Delaware’s Department of Education is asking state lawmakers for a $52 million increase to its budget next year.

But lawmakers are also trying to stem education spending - which accounts for more than a third of the state budget.

The recent growth in public school spending is driven mainly by the increasing number of special education students needing services. Of the state’s nearly 1,200 increase in student enrollment this year, more than 900 of those students have special education needs.

Education Secretary Susan Bunting brushed off lawmakers’ questions over whether districts are over identifying students as needing special ed. She says there’s many reasons why students may require more services than before.

“I think that if you talk to districts, and that’s all done at a district level, they’ll tell they’re trying to best meet students’ needs," she said. "The districts that I have been best acquainted with are not going to over-identify. I mean, they want to best serve, but it is not something they’re doing in order to add to their teaching staffs.”

More students are also being identified as needing more intensive services. The number of classrooms serving students with complex needs has risen by 76 percent in the past five years. Members of the Joint Finance Committee say they want more information on what’s causing the uptick in special education students.

Meanwhile school district superintendents statewide are asking the Joint Finance Committee to restore $26 million in education cuts made last year.

The cuts were made proportionally, with Christina School District taking the hardest hit, losing more than $3 million.

Gov. John Carney’s proposed budget doesn’t replace that money. But it adds targeted funding for teachers, math coaches and grants at high poverty schools and those with large numbers of English Language learners.

Democratic State Rep. Kim Williams says she’s in favor of adding that money into next year’s budget and without a lot of strings attached by the state.

“I think that the superintendents of the districts are the experts," she said. "They know what is needed day in and day out. I think there’s a little bit more flexibility in that. I’m not a big fan of grants because there’s winners and losers.”

Carney is also giving Christina schools in Wilmington, which are some of lowest performing in the state, more taxpayer dollars as part of a school consolidation.