This post is the first in a two-part series highlighting the Diverse Learners Cooperative’s recent report on funding education for students with disabilities.

Following Governor Lee’s call for education funding reform, the Diverse Learners Cooperative (DLC), a Tennessee-based organization that connects special and EL educators with resources, professional development, and peer networks, published Funding All Learners, a resource that presents three case studies and highlights the financial challenges schools face to support the needs of students with disabilities.

SCORE interviewed DLC Founder and Executive Director Brooke Allen and Program Specialist Justine Katzenbach to learn more about this resource and how finance reform can better support students with disabilities.

Why did DLC think it was important to provide this resource?

Teachers do not have the time and space to dig into school funding reform, yet they and their students are directly impacted by it. Our work is grounded in supporting diverse learner educators, so we wanted to provide an accessible resource that illustrates what special educators need to best serve students with disabilities.

Tennessee’s current education funding formula uses an “options” approach to assess student need. Is that good for students?

Tennessee’s “options” program includes a cumbersome coding system to categorize disabilities and their severity to determine what students need. The system lacks transparency, and school-based practitioners generally don’t understand how students qualify for options and how those options relate to funding. This approach negatively impacts students’ ability to access the support they need.

Your report highlights how a student-weighted funding formula can better serve students with disabilities. Can you explain?

Students with disabilities need what their general education peers need AND additional support to access an equitable educational experience. Shifting to a student-weighted funding formula (as opposed to a resource-based one) allows schools to more easily allocate funds and justify additional funds to serve students based on individual needs. A student-weighted model also is clearer for school-based staff and parents/guardians to understand how funds follow their child.

For example, the report profiled Jacklyn, a student who needs additional support to be successful, including access to a paraprofessional, social skills curriculum materials, and individualized rewards. This is markedly different another student profiled — Luke — who needs academic intervention teachers and materials. School funding formulas should reflect this wide range of needs, specifically the additional costs related to students with disabilities.

This approach to funding can “level the playing field” and ensure equity for learners who are furthest from opportunity. A student-weighted funding formula is the next step in closing the achievement gap we see among Tennessee students with disabilities and their nondisabled peers.

Our report doesn’t advocate for one specific approach to assigning weights but demonstrates the need to fund students at different levels based on individual need, and just how wide that range is.

Across the student profiles in our report, we highlight how the cost of educating a child with disabilities differs within and across disability categories. The case studies delineate the funding necessary to support these students (ranging from $6,390 to $34,064) and how this amount significantly exceeds what their nondisabled peers require to access quality educational opportunities. For example, if Ahmed received all of the necessary services outlined in his Individualized Education Plan (IEP), it would cost a school $34,064 on top of the current BEP allocation of $11,139.

Governor Lee’s Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA) proposal includes weights for students with disabilities. What are your thoughts on the proposal?

As outlined in TISA’s weights category, students with disabilities will receive different amounts of funding based on their unique learning need (ULN). The amount will range from 15 percent to 150 percent, depending on a student’s level of need and services. The specific designation process was not shared, but Commissioner Schwinn noted that students with more than one ULN will receive stacked weights to their base funding amount.

Part two of this series will look deeper at the unique needs of students with disabilities and how a new funding formula could better support them.

Caroline O’Connor is a graduate fellow at SCORE. Peter Tang is SCORE’s Senior Director of Research.

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