Friday, February 9, 2007
Education Reform Law and SPED costs squeeze budget
Virtually all of the cities and towns in Massachusetts are facing long-term financial problems. Local governments are inadvertently trapped by the convergence of four major forces: Proposition 2 1/2, the State's Landmark Education Reform Act of 1993, rising health insurance costs and recent cuts in local aid. As a result, Massachusetts lost 14,200 municipal jobs between February 2002 and August 2004, more than any other state.
The State's Landmark Education Reform Act of 1993 has had far-reaching effects on town budgets. The goal of the Education Reform Act was to raise the performance of lower performing schools, require a base level of spending and provide more state money, in the form of Chapter 70 funds. The state mandates the minimum amount towns must spend per student.
Problems with the distribution of state funds
In 1993, 60% of the districts were spending less than the foundation budget, the Reform Act's definition of adequate spending per school district. By 2000, all districts were spending at the foundation level. Although foundation-level funding for school districts across the state was achieved, there are now inequities in the amount of state money, Chapter 70 funds, given to economically similar towns.
Poor towns were supposed to come up with minimum funding but Proposition 2 1/2 prevented significant new local revenue. Some towns did increase their local support, but many did not. If they didn't, state funds filled the gap and continue to do so. As rich towns pass overrides, the state contribution makes up a declining percentage of their school budgets.
Another problem is that towns must increase spending on schools based on the Municipal Growth Factor, regardless of school population. This could present a problem for Carlisle in several years if, as predicted, there is a decline in the school population. The Municipal Growth Factor is calculated annually based on the town's revenue growth.
There are other problems with the distribution of funding as a result of the law. The "Hold Harmless" Provision states that no town will receive less than it did the year before. So, if a town receives more in funds than it should, it will continue to receive that amount, leaving less for other towns. Furthermore, the formula for the Foundation Budget has not been updated to reflect new education requirements, such as the Curriculum Frameworks, MCAS and No Child Left Behind. But most importantly, it does not accurately account for Special Education expenses.
Rising costs of special education
The goal of the Landmark Education Reform Act of 1993 was to provide "a free and appropriate education for all." Chapter 70 funds were supposed to ease the burden of these reforms and bring all towns up to a minimum level of education. However, even though state aid has increased by $2 billion since 1993, it has not kept up with the costs of Special Education, which have grown dramatically over that time.
Students who qualify for special education might receive academic services, speech and language therapy, occupational and physical therapy, depending on the student's needs.
At the time the law was written, lawmakers assumed that 4% of the population were special education students. However, local school records show that up to 20% of the students are receiving special education services; Carlisle is at the low end of the range with 11%.
As seen in the charts on this page, Carlisle's percentage of students with Individual Education Plans (IEPs) is significantly lower than other schools. Director of Special Education Karen Slack said, "The likely reason for such a low percentage identified is a result of the inclusion model [used at this school]. With a special educator at each grade level, they support all children in the classroom, not just those with special needs."
The Carlisle inclusion model provides a special educator for each grade who is a resource for all students and knows the curriculum. In addition, special educators coach classroom teachers in different approaches to teaching the subject matter which benefits all students. Reading specialists act as resources to the staff. Guidance counselors are school psychologists who help with social skills and friendship groups. They test for disabilities and are liaisons for therapists that see students outside the school.
The strength of Carlisle's program lies not only in its personnel but in the connections between them. Nurses, psychologists and administrators hold weekly meetings. They get input from teachers, special educators and parents and discuss what is going on across the school. They know the students and there is coordination between grade levels.
Carlisle's SPED costs
When the law was written, the State anticipated that only 1% of students would need out-of-district placements. Many towns now exceed that number but Carlisle is just below 1% at this time. Accommodating special education students within the district comes at a cost; the average cost per special education student is $18,405 in Carlisle. In comparison, Concord spends $10,006 per special education student within their district.
Concord has a greater percentage of students in out-of-district placements, 3%. Looking at total special education budgets, their average cost per SPED student, including in district and out-of-district placements, is $16,253 compared to Carlisle's $20,542. It should be noted that the needs of special education students vary greatly.
Students with out-of-district placements have significant needs that cannot be accommodated in their neighborhood schools. Day placements range from $25,000 to $60,000 per student, depending on their needs, and a residential placement may cost as much as $150,000 per student. The out of district providers can increase costs as much as 10% per year as approved by the Operational Services Division (OSD) of the Department of Education (DOE), according to Jessica Murphy, Director of Special Education in Concord.
There are efforts to address some of the funding inequalities. There is work going on to change the funding formula so that local wealth would be defined not just by property value, but also by income of residents. In addition, property value would then be divided by the number of students instead of the number of residents, which would help suburban towns where children make up a greater share of the population.
© 2007 The