DETROIT — Typical public education initiatives that get a lot of attention like teacher pay raises and funding for preschool are taking a back seat to emergency needs as schools reopen classrooms and provide services to students learning at home.

While Michigan educators anxiously await federal COVID-19 relief aid, they are also calling on President Joe Biden to fully fund special education.

Some see the shift in control of the White House to Democrats as an opportunity to boost support for children with special needs and their families while easing pressure on state and local education budgets.

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Robert McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan, said the Biden administration needs to deliver on the federal government’s promise to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to support special education programs and ultimately benefit every student in Michigan.

While IDEA is “well-intentioned,” McCann said the federal government has never lived up to its promise to fund 40% of the costs schools face in implementing special education programs, requiring Michigan districts to take funding out of foundation allotments to cover the shortfall.

“If this administration finally delivers on that long unfulfilled promise, it’d be the single biggest shot in the arm for Michigan’s schools we’ve seen in decades,” McCann said. “Funding the IDEA program at the federal level is not only overdue but likely represents the best chance to close that funding gap we’ve seen in quite some time.”

Michigan receives and spends special education dollars in three spots: intermediate school district property tax millages, state revenues and federal revenues including Medicaid and grants from the U.S. Department of Education. Millages by intermediate school districts or countywide districts can vary wildly depending on ZIP code.

School districts are required by law to provide a “free appropriate public education” to students with disabilities, regardless of cost. They are also required by law to provide services outlined in individualized education programs, known as IEPs, or 504 plans that outline specific accommodations for a student.

Dedicated federal and state funding has never been sufficient to cover the full costs of services so costs not covered from dedicated revenue sources must be paid from the district’s general operating budget. Nearly all school districts do that, says Craig Thiel, research director for the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.

Based on data from a 2016-2017 school year analysis done as part of a Special Education Funding Subcommittee report submitted to then-Lt. Gov. Brian Calley in November 2017, Thiel says if the federal government were to fully fund special education at the 40% level it is supposed to, Michigan districts statewide would free up nearly $700 million in general education dollars, which could go back into the classroom.

“The failure of the federal government to not live up to special education funding does not hurt special education kids directly,” Thiel said. “They are entitled by law to those services. The federal failure to do that results in fewer general fund dollars for general education students.”

More than 200,000 children served by public schools in Michigan have moderate to severe disabilities, with educational plans and therapies that rely on the structure of a classroom setting and face-to-face services and lessons.

Randy Liepa, Wayne RESA superintendent and a member of the School Finance Research Collaborative, said his group has provided the roadmap to fixing Michigan’s broken school funding approach to make it fairer for all students, regardless of their circumstances.

“We call on President Joe Biden and Congress to secure this required federal funding for Michigan’s special education students, who face unparalleled learning challenges during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” Liepa said. “We also call on Michigan policymakers from both parties to heed the findings of our report, which recommends a weighted formula that serves the unique, individual needs of every Michigan child.”

Education experts say children with special needs are among those most ill-equipped to access instruction and learning through computers and tablets. While many districts have decided to keep all students at home on virtual learning plans, several Michigan districts are offering some in-school services to families whose children have disabilities, with phased-in approaches that include limited hours and reduced class sizes.

Special education advocate Marcie Lipsitt says Michigan has about 211,000 special education plans, or IEPs, that districts are legally required to follow. Among those plans, about 50,000 are for students with severe cognitive and physical impairments and students with autism who rely on one-on-one services.

Lipsitt says she plans to lobby the Biden administration and congressional leaders to restore federal control over schools to ensure compliance with federal law on students with disabilities.

“Giving states and local school districts authority has created the wild, wild West,” she said. “Further, I will be pushing for the full funding of the IDEA, full funding for preschool and a federal commitment to streamline our nation’s teacher preparation programs to create a national teaching force that is globally enviable.”

Michael Testa is the parent of a child in special education in Livonia Public Schools. While he says the Wayne County district has provided whatever his seventh-grade daughter has needed in her specialized classrooms, he knows funding for students with disabilities comes up short.

“The reality is it costs much more to educate a special education student. There should be a weighted formula for all kids who need it, so kids can get things that are helpful,” Testa said. “Not every school has a sensory room. Some are bare-bones. Many need better equipment.”

Still, Testa says a permanent solution within the state should be sought, rather than hoping for money for four years during the Biden administration and then having to ask again.

“I would like a permanent solution in place,” Testa said.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest, said Michigan’s public schools are among the most inequitably funded in the nation.

“The Biden administration should play a pivotal role in changing that both immediately and in the near term in two ways: investing in Michigan children’s educational recovery, particularly for low-income students and other vulnerable students,” Arellano said. “And second, incentivizing shifts in state funding to be fairer. Many rural, urban and working-class communities’ public schools are not properly resourced — and we need to change that.”

David Crim, a spokesman for the Michigan Education Association, which represents teachers in numerous districts across the state, said federal funding increases are also needed in Title 1 programs targeted toward low-income students, especially students of color in urban districts, and to improve and repair the infrastructure in the nation’s public schools.

“The pandemic has both exposed and exacerbated the unmet needs of those students who need fully funded pre-K programs, updated technology and more educators who can devote time to work one-on-one with students,” Crim said. “Many school buildings are in need of not only technology upgrades but also basic maintenance and improvement of plumbing for safe drinking water and ventilation systems for improved air quality.”

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