Special Education

Spec. Ed. Costs Can Be Taxing For Districts

By Joetta L. Sack — March 14, 2001 8 min read
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Brandee Helbick knows firsthand the need for more money for special education. She teaches 12 students with a wide range of disabilities in a converted supply closet, and basic materials and competent aides are tough to find.

But what really makes her frustrated is having to defend her job and the money spent on special education to some residents here in fiscally conservative New Hampshire, which is embroiled in a long-running debate over its school finance system. Often, she says, people say things like “It’s not fair to spend so much money on those kids,” or “Does that mean the band won’t get new uniforms this year?”

“There’s a lot of backlash,” said Ms. Helbick, who teaches at Londonderry (N.H.) Middle School, near the Massachusetts border. “There have been some people who were disappointed to hear that the money is going to be spent on kids who ‘aren’t going to amount to anything.’ ”

As special education costs and enrollments have risen across the nation, so, too, has concern over the burden on state and local school budgets. In many cases, communities have responded by cutting back on other education expenses or raising property taxes—actions that sometimes fuel resentment from people who don’t have a personal stake in teaching students with disabilities.

“Around the country, we’re seeing more and more people concerned about property taxes, and it’s largely due to special education costs,” said Dan Fuller, the director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association.

“That line item just sticks out so much,” added Dennis Murphey, a lobbyist for the New Hampshire affiliate of the National Education Association. “It has a tendency to pit student against student.”

Increasingly, politicians as well as grassroots activists like Ms. Helbick are trying to address that situation by pushing for increases in federal funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the 25-year-old law that mandates a “free, appropriate public education” for students with disabilities. The federal government set out to pay up to 40 percent of the national average for per-pupil expenditures for educating such students when it passed the law in 1975, but it has never come close to that goal.

In the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, Congress appropriated $6.3 billion for special education. While that amount is almost triple the figure five years ago, it still accounts for just 15 percent of the total average per-pupil expenditure, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Education.

“This is a classic example of Washington pouring on unfunded mandates, and it’s greatly resented by New Hampshire in particular,” said state Rep. Neal M. Kurk, a Republican who chairs the finance committee of the New Hampshire House of Representatives.

‘Misdirected Anger’

Many educators, parents, and lawmakers in the Granite State share that view.

“You see the effects of a lack of federal funding so clearly in New Hampshire, because it has small districts, small schools, and small towns where people really know one another,” said Margaret Hassan, the mother of a student with cerebral palsy who lives in Exeter, N.H. “Certainly, there is a perception that expensive special education kids increase property taxes.”

Kenneth E. Coleman, a member of the Merrimack, N.H., school board and the parent of a disabled child, said he has seen many cases in the state in which local school boards have had to cut other programs to pay for special education, in particular when a student who requires expensive services moves into a small district.

“It’s unfair that there are federal protections for special education students, but there’s nothing to protect the children who are taking music, art, or gifted-and-talented programs,” he said. “That creates tremendous resistance ... and a lot of misdirected anger.”

Grace Reisdorf, the president of the Derry, N.H., school board, said her fast-growing suburban district has had to delay building a new facility, hiring more teachers to reduce class sizes, and buying new curriculum materials because of special education costs.

“I don’t believe we’re shortchanging [the general education students] yet, but we could,” she said. “It all goes back to, if IDEA were fully funded at the federal level, we’d have a lot fewer problems.”

New Hampshire’s chronic wrangling over how to finance K-12 education hasn’t helped matters, either. The state has no income or sales tax, so it has to pay for schools largely through local property taxes. In many towns, the taxes on a $100,000 house run more than $6,000 a year, residents say.

Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, proposed a sales tax last month, but the measure’s prospects are unclear. (“N.H. Governor Proposes Sales Tax To Pay for Schools,” Feb. 14, 2001.)

In New Hampshire, “people tend to get involved and understand the impact that the lack of funding has had on their communities,” U.S. Rep. Charles Bass, R-N.H., said. “Special education funding hits home hard around here because of the dependence on local property tax.”

“It’s becoming a huge issue,” Gov. Shaheen said in an interview. “It’s not only a cost issue, but a very divisive issue in communities.”

High Costs

The state education department had to greatly expand an emergency fund in 1991 after one exceptional case in Nelson, N.H., whose annual education budget totaled about $700,000.

A student with autism and schizophrenia had an individualized education plan, or IEP, that prescribed more than $200,000 a year in services, including a residential placement in Massachusetts. Realizing that their town could never come up with that much money through property taxes, Nelson officials sued the state, which ultimately agreed to pay expenses for students whose IEPs cost more than 31/2 times the statewide average to educate a student without disabilities.

But it’s the large number of other students with less severe disabilities who run up districts’ budgets, Mr. Coleman of Merrimack said.

In general, students with disabilities cost more to educate because of their need for individualized services. Those may include working with a specialist, using special curriculum materials, and attending class with an aide or nurse and using technological devices designed to mitigate their disabilities. In addition, schools have to give teachers and administrators time off to attend IEP team meetings, and they often have to pay more for transporting the students to and from school.

“Catastrophic aid gives a lot of money for the headline kid,” Mr. Coleman said. “But that kid is the exception to the rule—for the average special education kid, the cost is $10,000 or $15,000 more, but we don’t get anything for them.”

More Students Identified

Schools nationwide have seen a significant increase in the number of students identified as having learning or behavioral disabilities.

The number of students diagnosed with specific learning disabilities rose to more than 2.8 million in the 1998-99 school year, a 45 percent increase from the 1987-88 school year. Overall, the number of special education students rose to 6.1 million in the 1998-99 school year, up 1.6 million from 1987-88.

“It’s easy to support families whose children are physically disabled,” said Ms. Hassan, the mother of a student with cerebral palsy. “There’s less support for kids who have less obvious disabilities.”

But some worry that more funding could add to the problem of students’ being misdiagnosed as requiring special assistance or being placed in special education because they cannot receive services through other means.

Statistics show that wealthy and poor districts tend to classify significantly higher percentages of students with disabilities than the national average. Many experts maintain that tendency is driven, in the case of well-to-do districts, by assertive parents who may misuse the special education label to get special services for their children.

In impoverished districts, those experts suggest, the push comes from teachers and other school officials and specialists wanting to get supplemental services for students who may need extra tutoring but do not in fact have disabilities. (“More Disabled Students Graduating, Ed. Dept. Report Says,” Dec. 6, 2000.)

“You must deal with the business of overidentification, or else you’ll never get to 40 percent,” said former U.S. Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who was a vocal proponent of increased IDEA funding as the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee until his recent retirement.

Efforts in Washington

President Bush has not yet proposed a budget for special education for next fiscal year, but he pledged during the presidential campaign to work with Congress to achieve the 40 percent funding level.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of senators reiterated its support for “full” 40 percent funding last week at a press conference led by Sens. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee’s chairman and ranking Democrat, respectively. The group believes it has rounded up enough votes to increase federal funding of the IDEA to $21.3 billion within five years.

Congressional Republicans have adopted IDEA funding as a cause for several years, arguing that it would free up local money for such purposes as building schools and hiring new teachers, which have been top Democratic priorities.

Not surprisingly, New Hampshire educators and lawmakers have been particularly active in trying to increase federal funding for special education. Ms. Helbick, the Londonderry teacher, has helped organize the National Campaign to Fully Fund IDEA, a grassroots group that is collecting signatures nationwide to send to Congress.

The state’s Republican representatives in Washington have also fought for that cause in recent years."Full funding of IDEA would have a dramatic impact on every school district in the country,” Mr. Bass said.

He reintroduced a bill this month to move IDEA funding from the discretionary side of the budget, where it is currently subject to the annual appropriations debate, to the mandatory side, where it would become an entitlement for school districts and thus not be subject to the annual appropriations process. The bill had 19 co-sponsors last year.

It’s a popular concept among many school lobbyists, although Mr. Fuller of the NSBA said he would expect some resistance from lawmakers on the congressional appropriations committees.

“After 25 years, they’ve had ample opportunities” to subsidize the IDEA at the 40 percent level, Mr. Fuller said. “We think the time is right to make good on this.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as Spec. Ed. Costs Can Be Taxing For Districts


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