The law came out of New Jersey’s previous school-funding formula in the 1990's, a way for the state to provide local districts with help for some of their steepest bills: so-called extraordinary special education costs.
These are the bills for students with significant special needs, often requiring expensive staffing and other services. The law at the time set the threshold at $40,000, offering up the state's help to bear some of the costs above that amount.
More than a decade later, Gov. Chris Christie has proposed raising the extraordinary aid fund to $162.7 million next year, up about 7 percent. But while welcomed by districts, it’s also not quite what it seems.
The education department this week put out the guidelines that the state used to determine the aid amounts for next year. For special-needs students in-district who cost over $40,000, the state would pay from 75 percent to 90 percent of the additional cost, depending on services. In out-of-district schools, the threshold is $55,000, after which the state would pay 75 percent, the guidelines said.
But the fine print is critical. This program, once widely praised by districts, has been long underfunded, and that continues. The guidelines say that after the computation, districts will still only receive 84 percent of the full eligible amount, a caveat explained later by the department as being due to the state’s "limited funds."
And what is not said is that $40,000 isn’t that high anymore in the world of special education, even for students served inside their home districts. In fact, the threshold of $55,000 for students in out-of-district schools is becoming closer to the norm than the exception, say some officials and others.
"The $40,000 is almost outdated. I’m not sure that it is so extraordinary any more," said Brenda Considine, a longtime special education advocate and coordinator for the New Jersey Coalition for Special Education Funding Reform, a group of organizations serving children with disabilities.
Even the $55,000 threshold is, "only a little above the average," Considine said.
According to the most recent state data, the average per-pupil cost for special-services districts run by the counties was $52,000, and that doesn’t include state-paid pensions and other costs.
Private schools for disabled kids can range widely, typically close to $50,000 per student but starting as low as $32,000 and going as high as $89,000 for a West Orange school for children with autism.
Still, Considine was among those who welcomed any additional relief from the state, pointing out that previous administrations have shortchanged the fund by paying well less than 84 percent of eligible costs in the past.
Of course, the distribution of state aid remains a point of contention in general, with the state Supreme Court currently weighing the latest challenge to how state aid was cut last year.
But some advocates have long said putting more money into the extraordinary aid fund would be a good, short-term way to help even out the aid across districts, as virtually every district deals with these costs at one time or another.
"We’re obviously waiting for the Supreme Court decision, but if the state is looking for ways to spread the money around, this is a natural place to go that is indiscriminate and treats everyone fairly," said Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, representing mostly suburban districts.