After 30 years of special education funding limits, NC parents want change

RALEIGH, N.C.Note: This article is part of an ongoing examination into how North Carolina’s schools have changed since the Leandro education adequacy lawsuit was filed in 1994, and how schools are handling the goals that have resulted from the case.

For years, Susan Book’s daily routine was interrupted by the same phone call.

Administrators at her son Emerson’s school would say he couldn’t handle school today. Could she come pick him up?

One day when Emerson was in third grade, she received the call, gathered her car keys and headed to school, to pick him up early.

When she arrived, she witnessed Emerson being dragged down a hallway. Emerson is on the autism spectrum. He had just had a meltdown in class, she said.

“I could hear him screaming,” Book said. “As a mother, you don’t forget that.”

She took him home. A place he’d say he never wanted to leave again — not if it meant going back to school. He stopped reading books. His mood sunk. He lost confidence.

In North Carolina and beyond, cutting the school day short — because the child can’t handle school or the school can’t handle the child — is common for parents of children with disabilities, especially autism. Sometimes it’s the result of a call home to pick the child up. Sometimes it’s the result of the child refusing to go to school because they don’t feel safe there.

Called “push outs,” they are voluntary and don’t go down as official suspensions. They’re absences that, over time, can become excessive and amount to learning loss, or a slowed pace of learning because of time away from the classroom.

Learning loss for students with disability-related behavioral challenges has persisted for years, since before the COVID-19 pandemic lifted the term into common vernacular.

Emerson, who calls himself a bookworm and loves science felt “traumatized” and too distracted to learn. “I always wanted to go home,” he said.

As North Carolina faces legal obligations to improve its public schools and student success, data show the state’s students with disabilities are falling further behind their nondisabled peers and further behind students with disabilities across the nation.

Families and educators describe an under-resourced system and too few educators who are sufficiently trained or knowledgeable in how to work with students with certain disabilities.

Many families of students with disabilities contend that services are inadequate, staffing is lacking, and schools are often not prepared to provide the curriculum, support or therapy their children need. They describe vastly different experiences school-to-school.

Teachers describe insufficient resources, inappropriate discipline practices and disparities between students whose families can afford extra therapeutic services outside of school and students whose families cannot.

A funding cap

The North Carolina Constitution promises a “sound basic education,” according to a 1997 state Supreme Court ruling in the still-ongoing education adequacy case Hoke County Board of Education, et. al v. State of North Carolina. And rulings in the case have since found that schools statewide aren’t meeting that standard.

In 2021, the state and plaintiffs in that case — namely, families and school boards in five lower-income counties — agreed on a plan to fix that. The plan calls for numerous changes, including drastic increases in funding for students with disabilities. One of the biggest changes suggested by the plan is the removal of a 30-year-old cap on how much the state is willing to spend on special education. The cap limits how many students can be counted toward funding, regardless of how many children actually need it or what their disability is. But the plan isn’t funded.

Outside of the plan, researchers have for years urged lawmakers to change the funding formula for students with disabilities. In 1994 — the year Leandro was filed and a year after lawmakers capped funding for students with disabilities — a report to the General Assembly estimated the cost of educating students with disabilities was likely 2.3 times the cost of educating students without disabilities. North Carolina’s funding was, and remains, far below that. During the 2021-22 school year, average spending per student in special education was 1.5 times as much as the average per-student spending, with or without disabilities.

The formula hasn’t changed much since 1994, and the cap has only been…

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