Educators talk special ed funding, safety

U.S. Rep. Kline holds roundtable

In preparation for an upcoming congressional hearing, U.S. Rep. John Kline steered part of the conversation toward school safety at an education roundtable Monday.

But the panelists, mostly school officials from Kline’s 2nd District, seemed more interested in special education funding than in guards and guns.

“For every dollar that has to go to special education that’s unfunded, it takes away from another student,” said Roz Peterson, a Lakeville School Board member.

Kline said funding to schools through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a perennial topic between local educators and the federal government.

He urged local officials — and his colleagues in Washington, D.C. — to push for special education funding first before new programs such as the Obama administration’s Race to the Top or technology purchases.

School safety was on Kline’s mind because the Burnsville Republican chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee,  which was holding a hearing on the topic two days later in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut.

“We can harden the schools all we want … and it’s not going to stop the incidents from occurring,” Burnsville-Eagan-Savage Superintendent Randy Clegg said.

Locking down schools and posting armed guards won’t solve deeper problems in a country with more such massacres than any in the world, he said.

“We shouldn’t be looking at making our schools more secure than a prison,” Clegg said during the roundtable,  held at Diamondhead Education Center in Burnsville. “They are a public institution.”

Some calls in the Minnesota Legislature to arm teachers worry roundtable panelist Jim Meyer of Education Minnesota.

“Our members don’t want to carry guns,” said Meyer, a political organizing specialist with the teachers union.

Responded Kline, “I can’t imagine a piece of federal legislation that would mandate teachers carrying guns.”

Lakeville School District Superintendent Lisa Snyder said her district has focused on mental health and training staff to handle crises in the moments before police arrive.

Special education funding under IDEA has long been considered an unfulfilled promise by many educators. Congress promised when it passed the act in 1975 to fund 40 percent of each state’s excess costs of educating students with disabilities. Instead, the federal government provides 17 to 20 percent of the funding, critics say.

The special ed funding gap costs Minnesota school districts $600 million a year, Northfield Superintendent Carl Richardson told Kline.

Talk of full funding has persisted for years but “doesn’t seem to move off the dime,” said Jane Berenz, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan superintendent.

“Then let’s do it first,” Kline told educators. “But that means not everything else is going to get the money you want it to get.”

The commitment made in the law when it was passed in 1975 won’t be fulfilled, Wabasha-Kellogg Superintendent Jim Freihammer said, adding that the nation is “sinking” in debt.

“It’s a 40-year mandate and we haven’t done anything about it in 40 years,” he said. “It’s not going to happen.”