District Superintendent Dennis Carlson, and
Director of Special Education Mary Clarkson An Interview withThe Civic Caucus 2104 Girard Avenue South,
Minneapolis, MN 55405 May
Chronic underfunding of
general education harms districts more than high special education costs
Dave Broden, Dennis Carlson, Mary Clarkson, Pat Davies, Paul Gilje
(coordinator), Randy Johnson, Sallie Kemper, Dan Loritz (chair), Dana
Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter. By phone: Audrey Clay, Janis Clay,
Anoka-Hennepin School District Superintendent Dennis Carlson and
district Director of Special Education Mary Clarkson make the point
repeatedly in the discussion that the real problem in funding is not
the cost to the district of special education, but the chronic
underfunding of general education. According to Carlson, $100 million
of the district's $400 million budget goes to special education. About
12 percent of the district's 39,000 students receive special education
services. In order to supplement funding from the state and federal
governments, the district must draw $31 million a year from its
general education fund to pay the full costs of special education. If
the state and local governments would cover that cross subsidy,
Anoka-Hennepin could hire 500 more teachers, which would cut class
sizes and serve all students better. Carlson points out that serving
special education students often costs far more than the revenue the
students bring into the district. Clarkson reports that currently
there are more students receiving services for autism than for
learning disabilities, a turnaround from seven years ago. She says
that school districts now bear the responsibility of educating
students with intense needs, who might have been institutionalized in
the past. She would reduce paperwork in special education by reducing
the number of individualized education plans (IEPs) by 70 to 80
percent, focusing rather on program growth for all students. Carlson
concludes by saying that school districts are in the business of
"tough love," trying to balance underfunding with the expectations of
Introduction: Dennis Carlson is
superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin School
District, ISD 11, the largest school district in Minnesota, with an
enrollment of 39,000 students. He began his career as an art teacher
in Mercer (WI) Common School District. He spent one year as recreation
supervisor at a youth center in Kenosha, WI, and then became a
community education director, serving in the Glencoe and Elk River
school districts and at Anoka-Hennepin, beginning in 1986. He held
that position until 2003, when he was appointed assistant to the
superintendent, and, finally, superintendent in 2008.
He has held many
leadership positions, serving on the Minnesota Community Education
Association board for five years, including a year as president. He
was co-chair of the National Council of State Community Education
Associations and served on the board of the National Community
Education Association. He was also co-chair of the membership
committee of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators and
regional chair of the legislative committee for Schools for Equity in
Education. In addition, he served as the president's appointee on the
Minnesota School Public Relations Association Board of Directors and
won that organization's District Leadership in Communication Award.
Carlson also earned
numerous awards from the Minnesota Community Education Association,
including its President's Award in 1983, Director of the Year Award in
1985, and Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003. He also earned the
National Community Education Association's Special Service Award in
1985, as well as the organization's Outstanding Contribution to State
Legislation Award in 2002.
He earned a B.A. degree
University of Minnesota in 1969 and an M.A. degree in Community
Mary Clarkson is
director of special education in the Anoka-Hennepin School
District, a position she has held since September 2008. She is
responsible for the district's special education programs and services
for children and young adults from birth to age 21. She oversees a
district special education budget of $75 million.
From 2005 through
September 2008, Clarkson served as special education coordinator in
the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District (ISD 196). She
coordinated and supported special education programming in eight K-12
schools. She was a special education consultant for the Blaine Cluster in the
Anoka-Hennepin district from 2001 to 2005, where she supported special
education staff in 13 K-12 schools. She started her career in 1996 as
special education lead teacher at Centennial High School in Circle
Pines, serving in the self-contained emotional and behavior disorder (EBD)
program and Alternative Learning Center. From 1999 to 2001, she was a
special education teacher at CenturyJunior High
Clarkson has served on
the board of the Minnesota Administrators of Special Education (MASE)
and won its 2013 New Special Education Leader Award. She has been
Regional Directors Committee Chair for MASE. She has been an adjunct
instructor at St.
Cloud State University and Minnesota State University, Mankato.
She received her B.S.
degree from St.
Cloud State University in 1996; her Master's degree in special
education and learning disabilities from Minnesota State University,
Mankato, in 2004; her Director of Special Education credentials in
2005 and her Doctorate in Educational Administration and Leadership in
2013, both from St. Cloud State University.
School District (ISD 11) is the largest school district in Minnesota.
According to Superintendent Dennis Carlson, the district serves 13
suburban communities spread out over 172 square miles north of Minneapolis and St.
Paul. It operates 24 elementary schools, six middle schools (grades
six through eight) and five high schools, plus alternative middle and
high school sites. Its enrollment is 39,000 students, one-third of
them living in poverty and one-fourth of them students of color. The
district's five high schools range in size from 1,700 to 3,000
students. Among adults living in the district, Anoka-Hennepin has the
lowest number of four-year college graduates in the metro area. It is
located in the Sixth Congressional District and, according to Carlson,
one-third of the residents are Democrats, one-third Republicans and
one-third independents, who move either way. "It's been a politically
charged school district," he said.
$100 million of
Anoka-Hennepin's $400 million budget is for special education.
Carlson said about 12 percent of the district's 39,000 students
receive special education services. That's about the state average.
Mary Clarkson, the district's director of special education, said
Anoka-Hennepin gets $7 million in federal funds for special education.
That will be lower with the sequestration, she said.
Paying for the
unfunded portion of special education draws $31 million a year from
the district's general fund. Carlson said
the district's cross subsidy for special education-the amount of money
the district must draw from its general fund to pay for special
education-is $31 million a year. "The state and federal government
underfund us $31 million a year for special education," he said.
"Since special education's inception in 1974, the federal government
has never funded to the level of what they agreed to, which is about
40 percent of special education expenditures," Clarkson said. "We're
not even in that ballpark."
of general education is the real issue. The special
education cross subsidy is not the issue, Carlson said. "The chronic
underfunding of regular education is the issue. We've gotten one-half
of the inflationary amount for the last 10 years." He said the
district needs $36 million in increased funding every biennium: $12
million for inflation each year and a base increase of $12 million for
the second year. These inflationary increases include 2.5 percent
increases in salaries and 0.5 percent for employee benefits. The main
cost of education is in personnel (80 percent), which includes a
teachers' contract with annual increases in step and lane movement and
insurance costs that total 3 percent each year. "If we only get $18
million from this legislative session, we'll have to cut $15 million
to $18 million again," Carlson said. "With some of the largest class
sizes in the state, I don't know where we're going to get that. It'll
be a brutal cut."
It's hard to cut
special education costs. An
interviewer asked how the district can reduce spending, if special
education is such a large part of the budget. Clarkson responded,
"It's really hard to cut special education costs for multiple
reasons." One is the federal maintenance-of-effort requirement, where
a district can't spend less than the year before for special
education. In the Anoka-Hennepin district, the increases in staff
salaries alone bring the costs up, so the district never worries about
the maintenance-of-effort requirement.
"The students come to us
and we're obligated by law to serve them," Clarkson said. "We can be
as conservative as possible on the types of services we provide, but
that's the one area that has federal mandates that say you have to
assure that students with disabilities get a free, appropriate public
"Special education was
developed out of litigation," she said. "It's steeped in litigation.
That's how that whole system works a lot of times." "We're almost
without fail always in litigation of some sort," Carlson added. "Or
under the threat of litigation."
Evaluation of which
children qualify for special education is a lengthy process. In response
to an interviewer's question about the process for identifying and
evaluating children for special education, Clarkson said districts are
required to have a "child find" process through which they identify
students with disabilities. There is a lengthy assessment process and
in Minnesota there are 13 different areas with very specific criteria
for which students could qualify for special education services. A
multidisciplinary team does the evaluation. She estimates that each
initial evaluation takes 30 to 40 hours to complete.
The goal of special
education is to keep the student with his or her mainstream peers as
much as possible. If a student
is deemed eligible for special education, a team comes together and
writes goals for services and what type of services the student needs.
Most special education students are mainstreamed for the majority of
the day. She said the most intense children make up only two percent
of the special education students in the district. Kids with more
significant needs may be educated in a center-based environment with
other students with similar disabilities.
Schools now have the
responsibility to educate children who might have been
institutionalized in the past. She noted
that years ago, children with disabilities were institutionalized,
because the education system bore no responsibility for them. "That
needed to be changed," she said. "This was the right thing to do. All
the individuals who were institutionalized are now in our educational
system. You have the most intense-need children in your school
systems. And those students have to have their needs met, regardless
of what kind of need."
In response to a
question about funding when those with special needs were
institutionalized, Clarkson said, "Schools are the one guarantee for
children. That's a huge honor for school districts and it's a huge
responsibility. But it has to be paid for."
Some children have
full-time nurses with them; some children have multiple adults with
them at all times. "These are expenses that absolutely have to be
covered somewhere," Clarkson said.
education students often costs far more than the revenue the students
bring into the district. Carlson said
that in special education, there are kids who are one-to-one, perhaps
with a paraprofessional and part of a teacher's time. That would be a
$30,000 to $60,000 expense for a student who is bringing in $10,000 in
revenue. Sometimes there are three adults to one student, who, again,
is bringing in $10,000 in revenue to cover a $90,000 expense. Clarkson
added that the district gets about a 50 percent reimbursement for
special education staff.
Without the special
education cross subsidy, the district could hire 500 more teachers.
Generally, over the district, the ratio of staff to students is 1 to
30, Carlson reported. The district has 2,700 teachers. If the state
and local governments covered the $31 million the district now pays in
a cross-subsidy, the district could hire 500 more teachers. "That
would dramatically reduce class sizes," he said.
"Our obligation is to
serve every student who walks through the door," Clarkson added. "If
we got $31 million more and could hire 500 more teachers, that's going
to benefit all children. This isn't a special education funding
problem; it's a general education funding problem. The system is
stressed to the point where it just can't take it anymore."
"If we had 500 more
teachers, the benefits to all of our students-most importantly, our
students with disabilities who are in the classrooms-would be
phenomenal," Clarkson said. "The special education students would get
Carlson gave an example
of a regular high school classroom that has enrollment in the high
30s. If one or two special education students are mainstreamed in the
class, parents will often say that the special education students are
noisy and disruptive and are hurting the education of the other 38
students. "That's where the cross-subsidy hurts us, because the class
sizes should be lower anyway," he said. "That's where the underfunding
really hurts us."
It's not clear that
anyone in the state is analyzing the total investment in special
education students from multiple sources.
An interviewer asked who in the state is looking at the total
investment in special education students: health care, mental health,
social services and education. Clarkson said she doesn't know if
anyone has looked into that.
"We know what happens
when we don't invest early," she said. "Early intervention is going to
make a huge difference for kids who don't come to school with the same
advantages that typical students come with."
There should be a
balance between mainstreaming and having distinct programs for kids
with special needs.
An interviewer asked if there is some other method of instruction that
might work with special education students. Clarkson noted that when
special education started, the students would leave the regular
classroom and have special instruction elsewhere. Research showed a
growing gap between "pullout" special education students and those who
were mainstreamed. "So we swung the other way to try to get kids in
mainstream classrooms," she said. "In my opinion, there has to be a
"Some students need
something different, much more practical and hands-on," Clarkson
continued. "It has to be practical, career-development skills. Some of
our students do not have the desire to go on to postsecondary
education. We should concentrate on making them contributing members
Anoka-Hennepin has a
net loss of students through open enrollment, but generally attracts
more special education students from other districts.
In response to a question, Carlson said his district loses a net of
nearly 2,500 students through open enrollment. Parents can shop for
the best special education services. "We generally attract more
special education students," Carlson said. "We have a very good
special education program."
The IEP can modify
learning expectations for special education students.
An interviewer asked whether students in the 13 categories of special
education have differing standards for what they're supposed to learn.
Clarkson responded that the standard for learning is the same for all
students. "But the IEP can modify expectations specific to a
particular student," she said. "Students with significant cognitive
disabilities will go on to some supportive-living arrangement. For
special education students who are mainstreamed, we ask teachers to
make modifications. Instead of learning all 10 things other students
may be expected to learn, maybe they'll learn the three most important
topics and standards. It's good to keep them in the mainstream
classroom, because that's where the teachers who are
special education population is changing.
Clarkson reported that seven years ago, the district's special
education program served 1,600 students with learning disabilities and
600 with autism. Now there are more students receiving services for
autism than for learning disabilities. The number of students in the
program with autism went up 550 percent over the last 10 years. "Our
special education and general education teachers have to learn a whole
new way of doing things," she said.
The district cannot
afford to do much research on different ways of doing things.
An interviewer asked how the district builds in an effort to be
experimenting with different ways of doing things. Carlson said
Anoka-Hennepin is a very efficient district, with only three percent
administrative costs. "We can't give much to research and
development," he said. "I don't know where to find money for it other
than through business partnerships." He described partnerships between
the district and various companies to work on technology, website
design and marketing the district.
Clarkson added that
special education has had a really successful experiment with
technology: some children with autism have used iPads successfully.
Early learning, early
college, technology-assisted learning and redesign of the paperwork
system could make special education more effective. An
interviewer asked about the top redesign structural and process
changes in special education that could make it more effective.
Carlson responded with three: (1) early education; (2) early college
for all students, so that they would have two years of college credit
as they graduate; and (3) technology-assisted learning. "There are
some kids who haven't fared well in school who'd rather work with
computers than with a human being," he said.
Clarkson added that the
paperwork system at both the state and federal levels must be
redesigned. The majority of parents don't understand it, she said.
"Because the special education system was built on litigation, you
have a system where most of the time is spent on dotting i's and
crossing t's. The mandated paperwork is intense."
"We really need to look
at program growth for all students, rather than IEPs," she continued.
"It would save time, money and stress and benefit the whole system. I
would use IEPs only for the most intensive students, which would cut
70 percent to 80 percent of IEPs. I would not cut the funding, because
then you could have flexibility on how you use your staff. Without
flexibility of funding, it's hard to maximize outcomes for kids." She
said then the district could better serve some students who are also
at risk, but don't fit into any of the special education categories.
Carlson commented, "We
are bogged down with process. Let's get outcome and results focused.
The government is burying us with unfunded mandates. They're making
political decisions. I don't need a political decision; as
superintendent, I need a practical answer."
There are many
barriers to successfully melding grades 11 to 14.
"We graduate 3,000 students every year," he said. "Ten percent of
those are through community education, getting a GED, or high school
diploma equivalent. One thousand of the 3,000 graduates go to college
and do very well; 1,000 do not go to college; and there are 1,000 in
the middle that somebody's got to have a plan for. But higher
education doesn't have a plan. We must have a sense of urgency about
The early 1970s were
the best time for education in Minnesota.
In response to a question, Carlson said the best time for education
was at the time of the "Minnesota
miracle" in the early 1970s, when the state said it would pay for
education. "If I could do one thing, I'd leave education to the
professionals, not to the politicians," he commented. "Politicians
make public policy and don't do a computer run to see how it affects
your local districts. This state does not fund the average school
district adequately. It funds either the wealthy or poor districts or
districts with high concentrations of poverty or kids of color."
kindergarten for funding over preschool education.
"Kindergarten is a great equalizer if we have all-day, every-day
kindergarten," he said. "We must have something like that in the
"We're in the business of tough love in education," Carlson concluded.
"It's a compromise between not enough funding and parents with demands
through the roof. The more we can negotiate with parents about what
you want this kid to be, the better off we'll be. And we'll do the
best job we can."
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Core participants
include persons of varying political persuasions, reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
David Broden, Janis Clay, Bill Frenzel, Paul Gilje,
Jan Hively, Dan Loritz (Chair), Marina Lyon, Joe Mansky,
Tim McDonald, John Mooty, Jim Olson, Wayne Popham and