QUESTA – When the fire alarm sounded before lunch in November of 2017, the staff at Alta Vista Elementary School knew they had a problem. A 6-year-old boy confined to a wheelchair needed to evacuate with the rest of his class. Unfortunately, the school had never purchased a chair that would let him leave the building. As the alarm kept sounding, teachers hovered nearby and debated what to do. The school had never put together an evacuation plan for the child.
The federal government is investigating alleged discrimination by Albuquerque Public Schools against a student with a disability. The claim involves Michael Bruening, a 16-year-old autistic student who last saw an APS classroom in May 2015, according to his mother, Laura Gutierrez. The school district placed Bruening on homebound instruction, or education at home, but according to Gutierrez hasn’t done enough to support his educational development. Gutierrez, who said she does the bulk of instructing her son now, estimates he’s only attained education levels around the 6th or 7th grade. “I can’t teach him without him blowing up,” she said in a recent interview.
As a report from the New Mexico State Auditor’s Office reaffirmed, New Mexico has had serious problems with funding special education in recent years. But the state’s ongoing struggles with special education go deeper than the audit, which found the state underfunded special education by $110 million from 2010-2012. Throughout the years, state lawmakers have clashed with Gov. Susana Martinez on how to fix the problem. The issue goes back to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), a landmark federal law passed in the 1970s that mandated public education access to special-needs students. Part of the law requires every state increase special education money each year or keep it level from the year before to make sure each special needs student services are met.
New Mexico underfunded special education by $110 million over three years, according to a report released today from State Auditor Tim Keller. In a letter to the chairmen of the state Legislative Finance Committee and the Legislative Education Study Committee, Keller says that the consequences could jeopardize future money from the federal government to pay for special education. Keller also said in a statement that the audit shows “serious shortcomings in our state’s ability to serve special education students, who are some of the most vulnerable participants in our education system and deserve better.”
His letter adds that the funding problems stem from “material weakness and significant deficiencies” within the state Public Education Department. Every year, the state is expected to fund special education at a certain level to qualify for federal money under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). That certain amount of money is typically called the “maintenance of effort,” or MOE.