Lawmakers must correct irrational school funding system

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A special education teacher assists a student.

Gov. Dannel Malloy has proposed massive changes in education funding and the legislature is beginning to work on his proposals.  While it is extremely unlikely that the governor’s radical proposals will be adopted, the legislature needs to correct the irrational funding system that now exists.  Sixty witnesses testified at the Education Committee’s recent hearing on the subject.

How does this funding dispute effect special education?  Currently, the only direct state funding of special education comes from excess cost reimbursement, which provides partial reimbursement to school districts for expenditures devoted to an individual student whose program costs more than 4 1/2 times the average per pupil cost in the district.

This system provides little incentive for districts to reduce the cost of very expensive placements and is susceptible to game playing.  In excess cost reimbursements per student, Pomfret, Salem, Darien, Winchester and Preston lead the list, each receiving more than two and half times the state average.  Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven and Waterbury all received far less than the state average.

Indeed, Waterbury received less than one-fifth of the state average. Put another way, Darien, with 4,800 students, received more than twice as much in total excess cost reimbursement as New Haven, with 19,000 students.  West Hartford received more than three times as much as East Hartford.

Clearly, there is something wrong with the excess cost reimbursement system.

The governor has proposed ending the excess cost grant program and using the money, as well as some additional money, to provide support to local districts for special education.  On top of that, he has proposed a new distribution formula, cutting out certain wealthy towns completely, to provide greater support to poorer cities.

Remarkably, while certain cities will receive substantially more in special education funding, under the governor’s proposal there is no requirement that those districts spend the money on special education, or even on education.  So, while the governor is claiming to enhance special education funding, he is, in reality, doing no such thing.

Here is the heart of the matter: special education is the best economic investment the state can make.  Kids with disabilities grown up to be adults with disabilities. If they are not taught the skills, attitude, and supports to live and work independently, they will forever be supported by the state.

If we can move an individual with a severe disability from needing to be in an institution to being able to live in a group home, we save a hundred thousand dollars each year for the remaining 50 years of his or her life. This is not going to work in every case, but, if special education works even in a small percentage of cases, the program more than pays for itself.

Put another way, for every dollar an aggressive special education director saves by providing inadequate services, hundreds of dollars may be added to the state budget in the future.

We should all be appalled when special education is singled out as an unfunded mandate.  The Connecticut General Statutes require local municipalities to maintain and pay for the cost of local police departments, fire departments, town clerks, public schools, and myriad other functions.

The state provides some money to municipalities, but the overwhelming majority of the costs are imposed on the local town’s taxpayers.  These are all unfunded mandates to the same extent that special education is an unfunded mandate.

Municipalities are a creation of the state.  The state has every right to impose statutory obligations on municipalities with or without reimbursement.  The issue of funding mandates simply comes down to whether the obligation should be paid for by local property taxes or by state income and sales tax.

Parents with the money to hire experts, advocates and lawyers are often able to secure appropriate educational services for their children.  But, those parents are a small minority of the 65,000 special education students in Connecticut.

When the IDEA was passed, there were three mechanisms to assist families of lower means.  First, parents who succeeded in bringing a due process action could get their expert and attorneys’ fees paid for by the district.  The Supreme Court has curtailed both, permitting the award of attorneys’ fees only when there is a final decision and eliminating any reimbursement for expert fees in Murphy.

Second, where parents disagreed with a district’s evaluation, they had the right to an independent educational evaluation at public expense.  School districts  have employed a variety of means to shut down these independent evaluations.

Third, the statute provided for a parent advocacy center.  The Connecticut Parent Advocacy Center (CPAC) is functioning, but is overwhelmed with cases and lacks the authority to bring due process hearings on behalf of parents. So, a free appropriate public education is largely a hollow promise for many students with disabilities in Connecticut.

With no serious threat of successful challenge by most parents, some school districts provide little more than baby-sitting to many special education students.  The State Department of Education refuses to investigate the substance of special education programming, regulating school districts on procedural trivialities.

Gradually, the special education system has become a top-heavy bureaucratic institution, substituting form for substance, procedures for quality education.  Certainly, more money is needed, from the federal government, from the State, and from the towns. But equally important is re-empowering parents to fight for the rights of their children.

Andrew Feinstein is a special education lawyer in Mystic

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