Panel looks to tackle skyrocketing special education costs

A state panel is considering recommending wealthy school districts and high-income parents with special needs children pay more to cover the skyrocketing price of special education.

One in eight Connecticut students -- more than 60,000 -- receives special education services, and nearly $1 of every $4 spent on education goes to special education. In the past decade, while general education costs increased 40 percent, spending for special education increased by 65 percent, nearly a $700 million jump.

The panel -- the Education Cost-Sharing Task Force -- which includes the governor's budget director and the co-chairwomen of the legislature's Education and Appropriations committees, will likely recommend who should pay for special education as it's now structured.

Panel members at a meeting last week, however, hesitated to support changes that many local school leaders say would cut their special education costs; the members leaned, instead, toward studying those changes.

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"I'm afraid special education costs are growing at the expense of regular education," Ben Barnes, the governor's budget director, said at last week's task force meeting. "If we do not figure out a way to control special education costs then anything we do for [overall education funding] is irrelevant."

Meriden Superintendent Mark Benigni, a member of the task force, said every year he has to consider cutting music programs, advanced placement courses and other elective classes so he can afford to pay for mandated special education services.

The situation is "alarming," he said.

In an interview after the meeting, Nancy Prescott, executive director of the Connecticut Parent Advocacy Center, said it's disappointing that decisions may be made on costs, not on the actual need of special education students.

"It shouldn't be based on numbers," said Prescott, whose center helps about 5,000 parents of children with special education needs receive services each year.

Who should foot the bill?

The cost of educating an average student in Connecticut is about $14,400. Thousands of special education students cost their districts well over $50,000 a year each. This can pay for services that include one-on-one tutoring, special learning equipment or tuition for an out-of-district program. (About 300 students cost more than $150,000 each year.)

Currently the state picks up the bill when the cost to provide special services for a student exceeds 4.5 times the district's average cost to educate a student. However, in seven of the last 10 years, the state did not pay its full share, which left districts paying even more of the cost.

The State Department of Education's budget director has reported that it would cost the state an additional $101 million to fully pay its share of special education and transportation costs for the 2013-14 school year, a challenging price tag that for a state struggling to keep its budget balanced.

In addition to the panel's preliminary recommendations to require that wealthy districts and parents pay more of special education costs, it also calls for low-income districts -- which typically have higher concentrations of students with special education needs -- pay a smaller share of the costs.

"Just put it on a sliding scale, where the wealthy districts pay 80 percent of the costs... Why don't we ask parents who can afford it to contribute," suggested Ted Sergi, a task force member and former state education commissioner. "And by the way, it will reduce costs for the state."

While committee members were receptive to the idea of different state reimbursements for districts, they noted they don't want to create any incentives for districts to identify for more or less students based on how much money they will, or will not, get.

Some panel members questioned whether federal and state special education laws would allow parents to chip in, noting that those laws require that special education students receive a "free appropriate education."

Prescott, of the parent advocacy center, said she has a serious problem with charging parents, no matter their income, for education.

"Free means free. Unless federal law is changed, I don't see any place for a parent to be paying for an appropriate education," she said. "It's amazing it's being considered."

What's driving the cost?

Connecticut is one of six states that requires a school district to prove that a special education student is receiving an appropriate education. In 44 states, the burden of proof lies on the parents to prove the education is not sufficient.

Many local school officials have complained for years about the costs of fighting a parent's complaint because the district must pay the legal fees regardless of the outcome. The State Department of Education reports that each year only about 200 cases are challenged and brought before an independent hearing officer.

Many districts point to the burden of proof issue as the single most expensive cost of providing special education. A preliminary task force recommendation would keep this state regulation -- but calls for the state to pay for an independent study to look at requiring the parent and the district to share the burden.

In a recent education department survey, 68 percent of districts say shifting the burden in the cases that came before the hearing officer would save them an average of $74,000 a year. But if parents had to pay to prove that their child's education services were not adequate, nearly half the districts said they would have made a different, and possibly less costly, decision, when negotiating which special services to provide.