Every student who walks through the doors each morning at one of Connecticut’s more than 1,300 public schools has their own unique skills and abilities, as well as their own needs and challenges. But despite their differences, each of these students has something in common: the right to a quality, equitably funded education.
For Connecticut’s more than 74,500 students who need some type of special education service, this right is particularly important. Students with disabilities are entitled to a “free appropriate public education” under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and must be provided with the special education service(s) they need to access that opportunity. For some students that service may be as simple as working with a speech pathologist once a week to improve their pronunciation, while other students may require far more intensive, full-time specialized services and support to meet their needs.
These services and the resources required to provide them vary significantly, and often pose difficult planning and financial questions to Connecticut’s public schools and municipalities. Adding to this difficulty is the fact that Connecticut is one of only four states with no system for funding all of its special education students.
Together, these factors have made it difficult for districts and municipalities to plan budgets that meet the needs of all the students they serve. School districts throughout Connecticut face fluctuating special education costs that 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.
Concerns about the special education finance system have consistently been raised by educators, parents, community leaders, and policymakers alike as we’ve traveled across the state speaking in communities about Connecticut’s school finance system. These concerns, coupled with feedback we have received over the past year, led us to develop a new model for funding special education, called the Special Education Predictable Cost Cooperative (the Co-op).
The Co-op allows state and local governments to share in the cost of funding special education through a cooperative model that uses actuarial principles to increase stability and predictability in special education funding for school districts, while ensuring decisions in service delivery remain local. The Co-op is designed with three important goals in mind:
- Protecting students. The Co-op protects students with disabilities by ensuring adequate funding is available for the services they need and deserve—no matter what their disabilities may be. At the same time, the Co-op also benefits those students not requiring special education services. All students benefit from the Co-op because predictable special education funding helps stabilize general education funding and ensure districts don’t have to resort to dipping into their general education funding to pay for necessary special education services.
- Improving predictability. The Co-op would allow all districts and municipalities to know what their total special education costs will be in the prior year, when they are creating their budgets, allowing for better budget planning. Then, during the school year, districts would be reimbursed for 100 percent of their actual special education costs.
- Increasing equity. The Co-op takes into account a district’s ability to pay for the special education services its students need. While under the Co-op every school district would receive some state aid for special education, and be reimbursed for 100 percent of their actual special education costs, districts with greater student need would receive greater state aid.
The Co-op is able to achieve these goals by aggregating special education costs at the state level to leverage the fact that, on a statewide basis, special education costs are predictable, even though they are frequently volatile at the district level. The Co-op would be funded by contributions from the state and municipalities.
The state would contribute by reallocating its current state support for special education to the Co-op, while municipalities would contribute by making a community contribution for each special education student who lives in their town. A community contribution would be calculated for each town using a formula that takes into account the town’s number of special education students, past special education costs, and the community’s ability to pay based on its wealth.
The Co-op model offers a solution, based on sound actuarial principles, that addresses the challenges districts and communities face every day. It’s time for Connecticut to adopt a real solution to its special education funding challenges. The Co-op offers a solution that benefits all students, improves predictability for our cities and towns, and ensures state support for special education is distributed equitably.
Katie Roy is the director and founder of the Connecticut School Finance Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to identify solutions to Connecticut’s school funding challenges that are fair to students, taxpayers, and communities. The organization recently released a report titled, “An Answer to Connecticut’s Special Education Funding Challenges.”