Editorial: NJ study on special education quality, costs offers sound ideas for …

A new report representing a year of work and the input of dozens of educators, experts and analysts offers a comprehensive overview of special education in New Jersey – and the ways it could be better.

A New Jersey School Boards Association task force has identified 20 ways to improve the quality of public education for about 200,000 students with learning disabilities while reducing the costs.

The rising costs of special education may be surpassed only by the need, particularly in New Jersey where special education classifications rose by 5 percent as overall school enrollment dropped by 1 percent during the same five-year period.

Given that rising population, the report seeks a change in the prevailing perspective as it makes a case for further integration of special education within the state’s schools.

“Public education should not be viewed as two separate systems — general education and special education — but rather as one continuum of instruction, programs, interventions and services that respond to individual student needs,” says task force chairman Gerald Vernotica. “In other words, it is part of the range of services public schools provide to children, not a separate place to put them.”

One of those services should be amplified to prevent a disproportionate number of minorities and English language learners from being identified as having learning disabilities rather than waiting “for documented failure before providing services.”
Intervening at the first signs of academic and behavioral struggles with prompt and focused instruction could prevent some children from special education classification, advises the report.

In many areas, the task force recommends regionalizing services as ways of trimming some of the multibillion-dollar special education costs.

While federal and state funding account for 43 percent of that cost, the rest is borne by taxpayers. And as several municipal governments have found, cooperative agreements can lessen that burden.

Regional provision of related and support services would reduce costs, support inclusion and allow school districts to direct more resources to the delivery of services at the classroom level, says the report.

It also calls on lawmakers to provide incentives for sharing on regional or county bases while removing any regulatory and financial obstacles.

As John Mooney points out in a NJSpotlight report, formation of the school boards association task force coincided with a law calling for creation of a state task force to study special education – but 13 months later, no one has even been appointed to the panel.

In that absence of action, lawmakers should acquaint themselves with the ground covered by this task force. Its report offers some good ideas for reducing costs while maintaining the quality of essential services.


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