In June 2016, when Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation to provide a financial bailout for the old Detroit Public Schools and set up a new debt-free school district, many lawmakers were hopeful that the long-running fiscal problems of Michigan’s largest and most challenged school district were now in the rearview mirror. Yet that hope is far from reality. A problem left unaddressed in the legislative package was Michigan’s approach to financing special education services, and that omission has the real possibility of derailing the fresh start provided to Detroit’s primary public school option.
The problems start with a familiar problem for those struggling to carry out what we’ve come to know as unfunded mandates. Special education students are entitled to “free and appropriate educational services in the least restrictive environment” and a complex web of federal and state laws largely mandate the services that districts must provide to these students, often without consideration of the costs involved.