Double Edge Sword of Special Education

While serving on the Merrimack School Budget Committee this year I had the opportunity to serve as the lesion for the special education department and reviewed their budget.  In doing so, while going over some issues I was already aware of it become more and more apparent the fundamental problem we have right now with how our state handles special education.

For starters let's discuss what special education actually is.  It ranges from a 504 plan, which could be as simple as a requirement that a child with bad eye sight have a seat at the front of the room, to very expensive IEP (Individual Education Plans).  And while a 504 plan more then likely wouldn't add to the cost of a child's education the IEPs would and in some cases could ad quite a bit.  Special ed also ranges from age 3 or whenever a child is identified to age 21 leaving the kids in the system far longer then average students would ever be.  On top of this you have federal laws and state laws which require every child be taught even if the child is so disabled there is no chance for them to lead a normal life or even if they are dying.  Every effort is made to maintain normalcy for these children.  This means school systems in some cases even have to bring in expensive medical personnel to help meet the specific requirements of each child or send them to a specialized facility which could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.   For instance one child Merrimack is sending to Crotched Mountain has a tuition of $324,957 for just that one child.  On top of that you'd have transportation and other related costs as well.  So it's possible for a town with several severe cases to run expenses into the millions for a small handful of children.

It is important to educate so the needs and requirements of special ed children isn't the problem.  Nor specifically is the extreme costs associated with the more extreme cases.  Every effort should be made to meet the needs of every child and to make every effort for every child to have as close to a normal life as permitable. 

The problem is with how it is funded.

The federal government puts many requirements on school systems so one would think based on such mandates we would receive at least that of the cost needed to educate an average child  (roughly $10,000 a year) if not the costs required to meet such mandates, right?  Nope.  The federal government gives each school $1,300 per special ed child. 

So what about the state level?  Surely the state would fund at least the average cost right or meet the requirements they place on school systems?  Again, nope.  The state gives NOTHING until the cost of education for that child reaches 3.5% of the state average for per student cost or about $35,000 and then they only pay 80% of costs exceeding $35,000.  So a child who's plan costs $100,000  would put a burden of $48,000 on the local community leaving local tax payers to cover the bill.

Hence the problem of tax payers turning to schools who have decent special education departments basically saying, "You're doing too good a job and you've become a magnet which costs us too much money.  Stop it!"  In other words it benefits the towns who do a poor job educating special needs children by driving away the high costs of their living there while punishing those who do a good job by increasing their taxes as each additional special needs child moves in.

What's the solution?  I'm not sure if I know.  It's easy to think shifting the burden to the state so towns are not discourage as they are now would be the right way to go but as we already see with federal funds, towns would then be encouraged to code average children who wouldn't increase costs in an effort to capture some of the funds ($1,300 per child in the case of the federal funding).  This would essentially be "free" money they could add to their budget without increasing the local tax burden and let's face it, if local taxes aren't going up even if they spend more people don't complain.  That's how towns get themselves in pickles... they spend like crazy when funding increases then shrug their shoulders when the funding disappears leaving the locals thinking nothing can be done.

So I'm not sure what the solution is.  Leaving locals picking up the burden discourages towns from wanting to do too good a job for fear they'll become a magnet and shifting the burden to the state would encourage towns to code more children in an effort to capture more funding.  It's a Chinese finger trap if I've ever seen one but one thing is clear the way things work right now is a problem.