When it comes to special education funding and the policies surrounding it, Tammy Kolbe is an expert — or at least she thought she was. While preparing a recent policy brief, she found herself wondering whether or not anyone could truly be an expert on such a complex topic.

“I’ve always understood how complicated it is, but I think digging into the real details of it reaffirmed for me that this is way too complex and incoherent,” says the professor of educational leadership and policy studies at UVM. “The de facto system muddles along, but we’re not doing a good job on this front. We have to fix this.”

One of the most pressing problems is that it’s nearly impossible to estimate the current costs of special education. “We don’t actually know how much we spend on special education for children with disabilities in this country. Taxpayers should find that really disturbing,” Kolbe says. According to her research, the most reliable estimate of special education funding is nearly 20 years old and outdated by current classroom practices and technologies. 

But to understand what special education costs — let alone how to ensure there is sufficient and fair funding for special education programs and practices  — policymakers, families and practitioners first need to understand the complicated litany of laws and legislations that ensure students with disabilities have access to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).

As an expert on public finance, resource equity and efficiency in education, Kolbe was tapped by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) to pen a report that helps establish a new framework for understanding and evaluating the current policy landscape that shapes who pays for special education for students with disabilities. Her brief for NEPC, “Funding Special Education: Charting a Path that Confronts Complexity and Crafts Coherence,” also lays out next steps for building a better policy. 

Federal law compels “state and local education agencies to provide educational opportunities to students with disabilities comparable to those offered to children without disabilities,” Kolbe explains in the brief. However, the federal government does little to fund the special education that students with disabilities receive — covering just about 15 percent of total special education funding — and it does not set clear guidelines for who should pay the remaining share. The result is a hodgepodge of state policies, each with different assumptions about how much they should pay for special education. This leaves local school districts responsible for whatever costs federal and state governments do not fund, with the extent of this burden varying considerably across and within states.

“Yet, we know not all districts have the same ability to raise money. How do we do a better job being effective and fair with the dollars so that certain districts aren’t burdened with costs and potentially jeopardize whether students with disabilities have access to the services they need?” Kolbe asks.

The short answer: “This brief is a place to start.”

Her real goal with the policy brief was to help policymakers, practitioners and families with disabled children understand how we pay for special education. “It’s poorly understood and, frankly, it’s really broken.” While the brief calls out serious challenges — like not knowing how much special education costs and the fact that access to funds to pay for special education differs from state-to-state, and even school-to-school — it concludes by pointing to specific places that policymakers can begin moving the system in a better direction immediately. 

First and foremost, Kolbe calls for a new data source that monitors special education spending and provides periodic benchmarks of the costs. She also suggests establishing new practices and policies that divide special education costs fairly across federal, state and local agencies, and for new, flexible funding streams that allow special and general education systems to collaborate on early intervention services for at-risk students.