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Some parents of children with disabilities have complained for years that Montana public schools aren’t doing enough to educate their kids. So have parents of gifted students.

Meanwhile, some school officials complain of struggling as the costs of educating students with special needs competes with the costs of educating general students.

Now an interim committee of the Legislature has started looking into how the state pays to educate kids with special needs and whether it could be done better. The eight-member Education Interim Committee held its first meeting this week in Helena.

Fellow legislators asked the committee to study the “needs and costs” of educating students with a variety of special needs, and to report back to the next Legislature in 2019 with recommendations.

The term “special needs” includes special education students with disabilities, as well as gifted students, students learning English and those at risk of dropping out. The Montana Constitution calls for an education system that will “develop the full educational potential of each person.”

The Legislature has asked the committee to investigate several topics, including national best practices for serving special needs students, alternative funding ideas, and ways to prevent “tendencies to over-identify” too many students as needing special education services “in order to receive more funding.”

The number of children identified by schools as needing special education services is rising faster than the number of students overall, according to the state Office of Public Instruction.

Special-ed students increased from 16,032 to 18,056 students in the past five years, or from 11.3 percent to 12.3 percent of all Montana schoolchildren. Students may be in special education because of learning disabilities, developmental delays, autism, blindness, hearing impairment, brain injury or other reasons.

While some lawmakers feel too many students get labeled as needing special services, advocates for kids with dyslexia complain their kids don’t receive enough services. Rural schools that band together in co-ops to pay for special education services often feel funding is inadequate.

And parents of gifted students have argued that their children’s education isn’t adequately funded. Funding for gifted and talented students in Montana has stayed at $250,000 a year for several years, despite efforts to increase the amount.

In the Bozeman public schools, roughly 10 percent of students are identified as needing special education services, but those services cost slightly more than 10 percent of the budget, said Steve Johnson, deputy superintendent.

Johnson said he’d like to see the Legislature handle funding for special education students the same way it handles funding for the general student population – by automatically assuming in the law that state money should be increased to cover inflation.

“They should be treated the same,” Johnson said.

Instead of providing inflation funds for special education, the 2017 Legislature approved a one-time, one-year 1.44 percent increase for special education in the 2017-2018 school year.

However, the 1.44 percent inflationary increase could be cut by one-third if state revenues fail to reach certain targets by Aug. 15. Worried that revenues may fall short, the 2017 Legislature approved automatic budget cuts that would be triggered if money rolling into the state treasury falls below predictions made last spring.

Triggered cuts could affect everything from the state Historical Society to pay raises for Montana University System employees.

The Education Interim Committee, which plans to meet about six times, will holds its next scheduled meeting Aug. 22.

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or gails@dailychronicle.com.

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