Published Online: March 5, 1997

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The 1993 Education Reform Act in Massachusetts set statewide goals to boost student learning, accountability, and teacher quality. And it provided additional dollars to help schools in their reform efforts. But for many districts, those dollars instead are going to pay for special education, a recent report says.

On average, per-pupil special education expenditures statewide grew by almost $4,000 from fiscal 1990 to 1995, while they increased only $305 in regular education, says the report, released last month by the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

"The Education Reform Act set ambitious new standards and dedicated significant funds for the improvement of education," the report says. "However, for the majority of districts, the increase in special education spending has meant that little of the new funds allocated to education have been available for the improvement of regular education."

For most districts, the main causes of the rising costs were increases in the numbers of preschool children and foster-care children placed in a local community who required special education services, the report found. In addition, special education costs increased in some communities when students who had been attending specialized private schools at taxpayer cost moved in from other districts.

Not only are there more preschool children who need special education, but those children have more significant disabilities than in the past. Medical advances in recent years have meant that severely disabled children who otherwise would not have survived childhood are entering public school systems.

What people should take away from the report is that rising costs in Massachusetts are real, said Sheldon H. Berman, the superintendent of the Hudson, Mass., schools and a co-chairman of the task force that produced the report.

"We have to stop blaming schools or parents" for the rising costs, he said. "Special education costs more today and will continue to cost more five years from now. It's a reality and until we address it, we'll compromise education for all children."

Massachusetts has the highest percentage of students in special education in the country--about 17 percent, the report says. Many people have interpreted the state's special education law as requiring a higher level of service than is mandated under federal law. The report calls for the state to alter the law, change the way it pays for special education, and better address the social and economic causes of increased special education costs.

--LYNN SCHNAIBERG lschnaib@epe.org

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