Someone finally said the words and it’s about time!
Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School Superintendent Carol Woodbury specifically cited special education cost overruns as the reason for the February layoff of 41 staff in her district and the reduction of school bus routes for regular day students. Since then more schools have laid the blame for their financial travails at the feet of unfunded special education mandates.
Here in Massachusetts every special needs child arrives at school with a blank check. Because of our generous special education laws, parents of special needs students have the right to demand virtually any service they can get a “hired gun” to recommend, and the school district is usually saddled with that expense. If the hometown district doesn’t give parents what they want, they can “choice” their kid to a nearby school that will satisfy them – and the bill is sent to the hometown district.
High Needs Beget High Costs
The SPED programs that are of most concern are the six figure suite of services for high needs special education students.
In a February 20th story (see link at the bottom) Cape Cod Today revealed that there were 237 high-need SPED students on Cape Cod who together cost taxpayers $19 million a year, with local town budgets bearing about $12 million of the cost. We also noted that local schools pay over $10 million a year for SPED services of the Cape Cod Collaborative.
In Massachusetts last year a local school district had to spend $40,000 – four times the state-wide average cost per student – before they could qualify for up to 75% in “circuit breaker” relief from the state.
The reasons for recent growth in the high need population have been cited by the Boston Globe as an increase in premature births, obesity, diabetes, binge drinking, smoking pregnancies at advanced age, fertility treatments and other causes.
Some More Equal than Others?
The problem with our special education laws right now is that the “rights” of the high need SPED child trespass upon the rights of regular day students. If a high need kid is going to cost your school district $150,000 a year, his absolute right to those special services must be honored even if it means a lower standard education for un-afflicted children.
Special education professionals and SPED parents are a very entrepreneurial group in public education today. They advocate tirelessly and effectively for the best services for the children they serve. They are competitive, confrontational, litigious and highly effective in getting what they want.
The problem is that “what they want” is often so costly that it harms education opportunities for kids who don’t have special needs.
Still worse, we’re left with lingering concern over whether the taxpayers are getting their money’s worth with the high need placements. Are we paying $100k a year to teach a kid how to tie his shoes or brush his teeth – or is there significant, measurable progress being observed with these placements. Are “unteachable” children receiving what amounts to respite care for the parents or long term healthcare under the guise of special education?
Cancel the “Blank Check” - Start with these reforms
It is time to snatch away the “blank check” the Commonwealth gives to parents of special education students.
We could, however, start with a couple of basic reforms:
Are these an ideal? Far from it. Will SPED parents pitch a fit? Absolutely! Will the Cape Cod Collaborative start howling? I hope so!
Our schools are charged with educating children to be productive members of society. Many special education students will indeed go on to lead productive, tax-paying lives. Others, however, will always be a charge upon the state.
Since Carol Woodbury broke ranks on special education costs, other school districts have started to talk about this as well. The cat is finally out of the bag. The high cost of special education is harming the Cape’s school districts and trespassing on the rights of regular students.
It is time to ask our legislators and senators to either fund it better or put the brakes on runaway special education spending.