News

Special Education Funding Must Be Predictable, Meet Student and Town Needs (CT by the Numbers)

Op-ed

View the full op-ed at https://ctbythenumbers.news/ctnews/special-education-funding-must-be-predictable-meet-student-and-town-needs

By Katie Roy

It's a new year which means new opportunities, new resolutions, and a new legislative session right around the corner. Unfortunately, many of Connecticut’s toughest challenges remain from years past and continue to pose problems and fiscally impact towns and residents across the state. One of these long-standing challenges is unpredictable special education funding.

Over the past five years, the number of Connecticut public school students requiring some form of special education services has increased by 19.5 percent or more than 13,300 students — all while the state’s total public school population has decreased by 15,700 students (2.9 percent).

The individual learning needs of these students are wide-ranging and unique. Their diagnoses vary from autism to speech and language disabilities to learning and intellectual disabilities.

As a result of these wide-ranging needs, the resources required to support these students with the special education services they need and deserve vary significantly, and often pose difficult planning and financial questions for Connecticut’s public school districts and municipalities. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that Connecticut is one of only four states with no system for funding its special education students, which has created unpredictable special education costs for local school districts.

These unpredictable special education costs can wreak havoc on local budgets and force districts to dip into general education funds, or hinder their abilities to provide special education students with the resources they need. This experience is true for districts and communities whether they’re big or small, urban or rural, lower-income or more affluent.

For example, total spending for students with disabilities in Bristol increased roughly $1.3 million from 2013 to 2017 (the most recent year of data available). However, during this time, the district’s special education spending fluctuated, including rising from $27.6 million in 2015 to $28.1 million in 2016 before declining to $25.9 million in 2017.

This unpredictability is particularly challenging for districts educating students with extraordinary special education needs. While students with extraordinary special education needs represent a small segment of Connecticut’s public school population (roughly 0.8 percent), supporting these students with the services they need and deserve frequently results in high and volatile costs for towns and school districts and adds even greater unpredictability to district and municipal budget planning.

For example, in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, districts spent on average $108,301 per student requiring extraordinary special education services compared to $27,093 per special education student not requiring extraordinary services.

These services are often referred to as “excess cost” services because the cost of providing them to a student is at least four and a half times the district’s net current expenditures per student. While excess cost expenses qualify a district for partial financial reimbursement through the State’s Excess Cost grant, the grant has been statutorily capped at $140 million per fiscal year. Because of the cap, in fiscal year 2019, the Excess Cost grant reimbursed districts only $0.74 for every dollar they were eligible to receive.

However, school districts and towns across Connecticut need something better than partial reimbursement through the Excess Cost grant. They need a special education funding system that will create predictability and allow them the flexibility and freedom to craft balanced budgets that benefit all students and ensure adequate funding for students with disabilities — no matter what their needs are.

As we’ve traveled across the state speaking in communities about Connecticut’s education finance system and the state’s fiscal health as a whole, concerns about how Connecticut funds special education have consistently been raised by educators, parents, community leaders, and elected leaders alike.

Now is the time for policymakers to act. Connecticut’s students, schools, and towns deserve a better system for funding special education. They deserve a system that can properly respond to extraordinary special education needs and ensure providing needed services to Connecticut’s students will never cause a municipality financial heartache.

With a new legislative session beginning on February 5, legislators have an opportunity to usher in the new decade by passing a special education finance system that helps solve the longstanding issue of unpredictable special education funding, by specifically addressing the volatile costs associated with services for the highest-need special education students and offering stability and better budget planning to districts and towns while protecting and serving all students.

Let’s hope they make this their resolution.

Katie Roy is the executive director and founder of the School and State Finance Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit policy organization, focused on education funding and state finance issues, with a commitment to providing independent analysis, building public knowledge, improving transparency, and developing fair, sustainable solutions.