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

With the announcement of the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA) funding formula on February 24, a student-weighted formula is now before the General Assembly for consideration. This proposal has the potential to improve outcomes for millions of Tennessee students — including students with disabilities.

The Diverse Learners Cooperative (DLC), a Tennessee-based organization that connects special and EL educators with resources, professional development, and peer networks, recently 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 how education finance reform can result in better supports for students with disabilities.

What additional needs do students with disabilities have that additional state investment could support?

A key education focus in Tennessee is to prepare students to exit the K-12 system with the knowledge and skills they need to lead empowered lives. Our goal for students with disabilities is no different.

Above all, students with disabilities need highly qualified people. This ranges from certified special education teachers to paraprofessionals and related service providers such as occupational therapists, speech language pathologists, and physical therapists. These educators and related support staff also need access to meaningful professional development that aligns with the needs of their students.

Next, schools need funding to maintain transportation options that allow students with disabilities to safely travel to and from school. Transportation poses one of the largest financial burdens to a district, as evidenced in Ahmed’s profile in the report.

Additional state dollars through a weighted formula can support these services.

What is the possible overall impact for students with disabilities in Tennessee?

Reforming Tennessee’s education funding will lead to greater outcomes for students with disabilities both in school and in life beyond school. By investing more money in students with disabilities, by providing them greater access to direct support led by equipped and empowered teachers, we are taking steps toward closing the achievement gap among Tennessee students with disabilities and their nondisabled peers..

When we have state support, school teams, and families all rowing in the same direction with the appropriate resources on board to reach their destination, all students win. This rising tide will not only have a direct impact on the education and postsecondary success of students with disabilities but will lift all students to greater success.

As noted in SCORE’s Funding For Learning report, the Individuals with Disabilities Act has never been fully funded by the federal government. How should that impact Tennessee’s education funding reform conversations?

Both state and federal governments have a fiscal responsibility to ensure equitable educational funding for students with disabilities, and the unfulfilled promise of federal funding does not absolve Tennessee of its responsibility to these students. By ensuring fair funding of special education in our state, the benefits are felt by communities, schools, and, most of all, students who get the opportunity they deserve to learn at their highest levels.

Caroline O’Connor is a graduate fellow at SCORE. Peter Tang is SCORE’s senior director of research.

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