Facing a major cut in funding for the schools in Bristol, Superintendent Philip Streifer has cut electives, scaled back four-hour kindergarten to two hours, pruned athletics and cut other costs everywhere he can.
But his hands are tied to reducing costs to the fastest growing section of his budget — special education. Twenty percent of Bristol’s budget was dedicated to special education four school years ago. It is now at 26 percent.
“We knew we couldn’t cut special education. It can’t even be on the table for discussion. That’s the bottom line,” Streifer said, holding up the list of cuts he made to close a $5 million budget hole, which is almost 5 percent of his budget. “You are seeing a squeeze on regular education services.”
And Bristol is not alone in having to cut general education programs that serve many more students to pay for the state and federal-mandated special education services.
“It costs twice as much to educate a special education child than everyone else,” said Joe Cirasuolo, director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. “This is a real problem every district is faced with.”
But at a time when many interests are competing for scarce resources, special education should not be targeted says Nancy Prescott, the executive director of the Connecticut Parent Advocacy Center.
“Special education has always been used as the whipping boy when budgets are tight,” she said. “It’s unfair if you say this cost will lead to one program or another being cut.”
Prescott, who helps about 5,000 parents of children with special education needs get the appropriate services each year, said the cost of special education isn’t unreasonable. “These children require more specialized services. Of course it makes sense that it’s more expensive.”
The proportion of students in special education programs in Connecticut has declined slightly over the last decade, with about 64,000 students, or 12 percent, receiving special education. Meanwhile, spending for special education has increased by $700 million–a 74 percent jump–in the last 10 school years while other education costs increased by just 45 percent, reports the State Department of Education.
“Special education is getting pretty expensive,” said Jeff Forman, the director of special education for Windham Public Schools and the president of the Connecticut Council of Administrators of Special Education. “That is a huge portion of anyone’s budget.”
Statewide, one out of every five dollars spent on education goes to pay for special education, according to the SDOE.
While districts can cut most portions of their budget, federal rules require states and local districts to spend the same amount of special education from year to year, or risk losing federal money.
The U.S. Department of Education will issue a one-time waiver for districts to cut their special education spending, but only when a state has experienced “exceptional or uncontrollable circumstances.”
Connecticut received $136.6 million in federal funding for the current fiscal year and is not one of the seven states that have applied for a waiver, according to the U.S. DOE.
Prescott said the federal law is essential to ensure this vulnerable population gets necessary services.
“The school district is not allowed to make costs a factor,” Prescott said. “It’s about what does the child need.”
Cirasuolo agrees the law is well intentioned, but calls it an underfunded mandate. Federal money pays for about 9 percent of of total special education spending each year and state funding another 9 percent.
“That amount of funding is not making a dent in our actual costs,” he said. Cirasuolo.”This is mandate they are not paying for.”
Nationwide, 40 percent of all new education spending between 1996 and 2005 went to cover special education, according to a report from The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank for education issues located in Washington D.C.
Determining how Connecticut ranks in spending on special education has proven difficult as there is no standard reporting requirement. The Fordham Institute estimates Connecticut is well above average in special education costs, but admits its numbers are “speculative.”
Anne Louise Thompson, the special education chief at the SDOE, said districts may not have the ability to cut their costs, but they do still have the ability to prevent their costs from continuing to increase so substantially.
“I think technology is going to control some of the costs,” she said as one possibility.
Bristol Public Schools has tried to rein in their costs on special education by sending fewer students out-of-district. They even opened up a program at one of their schools for certain types of special education students that offers more specialized services. But Streifer said that barely made a dent.
“These costs are real and they are burdensome,” Streifer said, who is also the leader of the Connecticut Association of Urban School Superintendents.
Bristol spent $6 million last school year sending 95 students to other schools.
“We took that out of other regular education spending. That is not uncommon,” he said.
Statewide almost 4,500 children with special education needs are sent out-of-district, reports the SDOE. Forman said it costs districts an average of $60,000 a student.
“It’s like doing work on your own house, of course it’s cheaper if you do it yourself,” said Forman, whose district spends $3 million sending 65 students elsewhere.
But Forman said having the special education teachers for these students has been a challenge, as they have not been spared in the teacher layoffs facing many districts across the state.
“The ironic thing is now [districts] have to pay for more expensive places,” he said.
“You really are at the mercy of those that provide those services. They get to name their price,” said Cirasuolo.
For small districts like Ashford with 500 students, one or two students with significant special needs can really put a sizable dent in a districts budget.
Three school years ago, one-third of the district’s budget went to cover special education, and then four special education students graduated.
“It made a huge difference on our budget,” said James Longo, Ashford’s superintendent, whose district now spends just 15 percent on special education. “We didn’t see those costs as unfair. We give the kids what they need. We don’t try to stop it.”
Prescott said she can’t help but be disturbed by the common perception that the high special education costs are resulting in substandard education for everyone else.
“Everyone deserves a fair education,” she said.
Streifer agrees everyone deserves an “appropriate” education, but said state and federal law has resulted in districts folding and giving parents of special education children in many cases whatever they want.
“I don’t hear parents asking for anything other than a quality education,” responded Prescott.
When a parent challenges the educational services for their special needs student, Connecticut is one of the few states that requires the district prove the child is receiving an appropriate education. In almost every other state, the burden of proof lies on the parents to prove the education is not sufficient.
“Districts began to say, ‘Wow, that would cost us a lot of money. We’ll just settle and give them what they want,'” said longtime Department of Education spokesman Tom Murphy.
“I think there always will be a dispute between parents and districts for what is appropriate,” said Thompson. “There’s no unilateral definition about what’s appropriate… It’s not that everyone doesn’t want the best [education], the question is whether [the students] are receiving an appropriate education.”
“It can get messy,” agreed Prescott, noting Connecticut has a reputation of being a high litigation state for special education parents. “That’s the $64,000 question: What is appropriate for these children?”