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Montana Commission Proposes Increases in Special Education Funding to Help Montana’s Special Needs Children
In 2016, the 16-member Montana School Funding Interim Commission called for a study to look at special education funding.
In Montana, state funding is allocated on a per student basis, with an equal amount allocated to each student. However, in other states, students with additional needs—including both special education and gifted students—receive additional funding because of the extra resources required to educate them.
Most of Montana’s special education resources come through instructional block grants and related services block grants. Districts must also match $1 locally for every $3 they receive from the state.
Between 1990 and 2014, special education expenses grew threefold, rising from $40.9 million to $131.2 million. But the share of state funding has dropped considerably from 82 to 33 percent. That means local districts must meet the gap in funding.
As a result, three bill drafts to increase special funding passed unanimously, all of which would increase the base special education payment for the next biennium. That’s good for Montana’s special education teachers and the students who depend on them.
Montana’s Special Education Students
According to the Montana Division of Special Education, there were 130,651 students in Montana in 2016. Of those, 15,412 were identified as children with disabilities, representing 11.8 percent of the total student population. That’s lower than the national average of 13.1 percent.
During that time, the highest percentage of students (32.7 percent) in Montana were diagnosed as having specific learning disabilities, followed by those with:
- Multiple disabilities (22.4 percent)
- Speech or language impairment (18.6 percent)
- Other health impairment (12.7 percent)
- Emotional disturbance (4.8 percent)
- Autism (3.9 percent)
- Intellectual disability (3.7 percent)
Montana’s Special Education Programs Rely on Master’s-Prepared Educators to Drive Better Outcomes
The Montana Division of Special Education ensures that Montana’s children with disabilities receive a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment through the management of state and federal funds for special education programs. The units of the Division include:
School Improvement/Compliance Monitoring Unit – The School Improvement/Compliance Monitoring Unit ensures that each child with a disability is identified and provided with a free appropriate public education. The unit’s staff provides technical assistance to school district staff to ensure requirements are upheld.
Professional Development Unit – The Professional Development Unit implements a number of major training initiatives. It also operates the State Personnel Development Grant programs and IDEA discretionary grant monies. Programs include:
- Comprehensive System of Personnel Development (CSPD) – Ensures qualify educational programs and services for all children and youth.
- Montana Behavioral Initiative (MBI) – Creates a social culture and behavioral supports to work toward the emotional, social, and academic success for all students.
- Montana Higher Education Consortium – Works with teacher education programs to improve preservice instruction.
- Response to Intervention (RTI) – Provides high-quality instruction to all students based on individual need.
- School-Based Mental Health – Addresses the mental health needs of Montana’s children; collaborates with the Health Enhancement division of the OPI and the Children’s Mental Health Bureau at the Department of Public Health.
- Traineeships – Provides support for training programs for special education teachers, speech language pathologists, and school psychologists.
- Montana Autism Education Project (MAEP) – Helps students with autism learn specific skills and knowledge beyond what is acquired through teacher preservice programs.
Data and Accountability Unit – The Data and Accountability Unit oversees the collection, analysis, and reporting of all special education data required for federal and state reporting purposes.
IDEA Part B Program Unit – This unit oversees the dispersal of federal and state special education funds and ensures accountability when dispersing those funds.
How One Montana Special Education Teacher is Making a Difference
Leslie Kelly received the Teacher of the Year award from the Montana Council of Administrators of Special Education in 2016 for her work with special education students in her art class.
Kelly, a Belgrade Middle School visual arts teacher, received the Montana General Education Teacher of the Year award for her outstanding service she provides to her special education students.
Kelly works with seventh and eighth grade special education students. According to Kelly, “Art is important for everybody because it’s such a great outlet. Kids need a way to express themselves.”
In addition to encouraging her students’ creativity, Kelly makes a point of incorporating life skills into her student projects. She helps her students learn practical skills, as well as teamwork and communication.
For example, one of Kelly’s students doesn’t even speak. His art projects give him a way to express himself and convey ideas.