Some states appear to benefit far more than others from the current model for distributing federal special education dollars. (Thinkstock)

Some states appear to benefit far more than others from the current model for distributing federal special education dollars. (Thinkstock)

The level of federal special education funding sent to states varies widely thanks to an outdated model that favors some locales over others, a new report finds.

The method that the federal government uses to dole out special education dollars has gone largely unchanged since 1997. As such, it’s leaving significant disparities among schools, according to a new analysis of 2011 data that was conducted by the New America Foundation.

Currently, federal dollars to educate students with disabilities are allocated to states based on a formula that takes into account the funding level they received in 1999, the state’s population and its share of poverty. There are also minimum and maximum amounts in place as well as a requirement that no state’s distribution goes down year over year unless total spending on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act drops.

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A similar approach is then used by states to divvy funding to school districts.

However, the method appears to favor schools in small states and those with declining student enrollment, which tend to take home a larger share of special education dollars per student, the analysis found. At the low end, Texas received $177 per child from the federal government while New Mexico took in $291 per student.

At the school district level, the report notes that a Montana district with 136 students received $27,000 in IDEA funding — or $198 per child — while the Dallas schools, which served over 157,000 students, received just $147 per student totaling more than $23 million.

Such variation has a trickle-down effect, the report indicated, since state and local funding must account for the remaining cost of educating students with disabilities.

“For every year in which IDEA is not updated and revised, the formula through which federal dollars are distributed to the states becomes more outdated, and states are another year removed from the reality in which the formula was written,” wrote report author Clare McCann.