Ed McKeon: How government shortchanges special education



This is the third in a series of editorials about inequities and inadequacies in school funding, and how it affects public education in Middletown and other Connecticut districts.

Without doubt, the goal of providing a quality education, no matter their physical, mental or developmental challenges, cannot be argued. Every child has the right to an education.

Federal IDEA (Individuals With Disabilities Education) laws have codified this right to an education, and the federal government’s obligation to provide funding.

Unfortunately, and if you’ve read the previous entries in this series, you will anticipate this chorus, the federal government has not provided the funding they promised.

In writing the law, the feds understood that it would cost more to educate children with special needs. When IDEA was enacted, the federal government estimated that, on the average, children with disabilities would cost twice as much to educate as other children. After years of practical experience, many experts agree that the government’s estimated average is far too low.

The government promised to fund that “excess cost” of education by providing 40% of that excess costs to states and cities. In 2012, federal funding provided only 16% of the estimated excess costs.

This shortfall, of course, has been passed along to state government, who, in turn, have seen fit to shortchange municipalities and school districts.

Distribution of federal grants is based on a complex formula. In Connecticut, the state government only begins to provide “excess cost” funding when the cost exceeds 4.5 times the cost of educating other children.

In Middletown, the state has estimated for the sake of this formula, that the district spends around $14,000 per student. That means the district must spend $63,000 for a special needs student before receiving any “excess cost” reimbursement.

This year, in Middletown, the total cost for educating 661 special needs students, including basic educational costs, social work, psychological services, speech/hearing/language services, preschool and health services is estimated to be approximately $17 million.

Middletown receives just over $4 million in state and federal aid and reimbursements for Special Education.

In a previous column, I explained that the state, using the ECS and Alliance Grant formula, already shortchanges municipalities for the cost of educating students in this district and others. Taking into account that shortfall, the millions underfunded in Special Ed dollars puts the burden squarely on the shoulders of local taxpayers.

Critics have suggested that the “excess cost” funding multiplier of 4.5 is far too high, and that a more realistic formula would provide excess cost funding after per student costs exceed two times that of other students. Some experts argue that the state and federal government should be responsible for all excess costs for Special Education.

Private school students receive a group allocation from the school district. Middletown also pays for the services of magnet and charter school students from our district. And some students placed in special education through DCF, though attending school in other districts, are funded by Middletown.

While the federal and state government have created strict mandates for Special Education, and the promise to equitably fund those mandates, they have failed to provide the promised funding.

At a time when Special Education costs continue to soar, and as the definition of “special needs” is broadened to include more and more students, state and federal funding for these students and programs remains flat-lined, or in some cases, has been decreased.

Special Education funding is yet another instance where the state and federal government have shifted their financial obligation to students onto the shoulders of local governments which are already struggling to provide adequate funding for local education.

Ed McKeon is a member of the Middletown Board of Education. This column reflects his opinion and not the opinion of the Board of Education as a whole or of it’s other members.

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