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Op-Ed: We Need to Think About Special Education as a Service, Not a Place

It’s part of a continuum of programs and interventions, as inclusive as possible, and available to meet each child’s individual needs

Lawrence Feinsod (official photo)

In 1911, New Jersey recognized the importance of educating children with special needs by providing state funding to cover special-education costs that exceeded those of general education. The effort placed New Jersey in the forefront of providing special-education services -- a position it still holds and one that we should be rightly proud of.

Today, whether you wear the hat of parent, educator, taxpayer, or all three, you have to acknowledge that, in spite of our success, the funding of special education presents a vexing problem. Faced with limited resources, school districts often find that the needs of special- education students are pitted against those of general education students. This situation is unacceptable. Unfortunately, recent developments have only magnified it.

Since 2001, special-education expenditures have increased faster than the state’s funding for them. The federal government, which in 1975 promised to pay 40 percent of the cost of required special-education services, has fallen far short of this goal, and now covers less than a tenth of the cost. Add to this mix the state’s 2 percent property tax levy cap, which restricts efforts to fill the gap through local revenue.

At the same time, educators are seeking better ways of delivering high-quality services to special-education students, who make up about 15 percent of the roughly 1.4 million children in the state’s K-12 schools.

In this climate, the New Jersey School Boards Association in January 2013 created a Special Education Task Force to research ways to control costs, while meeting the federal obligation to provide a free and appropriate public education to all students, regardless of disability.

Chaired by Dr. Gerald Vernotica, a former assistant education commissioner and former associate professor at Montclair State University, the group reviewed New Jersey’s special-education funding system; studied other states’ systems; explored alternative funding methods, and identified cost-efficient strategies to fund and deliver these vital services. It met 13 times; consulted with more than 25 experts; and, this spring, issued a list of 20 recommendations.

The task force operated under a core belief: Special education and traditional education programs should not have to compete for limited dollars. Its goal was to identify ways to improve education for all—that is, reduce special-education costs without diminishing the quality of services.

To accomplish this goal, the task force developed a strong, sensitive, and do-able list of recommendations.

Foremost is state encouragement of early intervention, so that school districts identify students with special learning needs at a young age, and implement appropriate strategies, assessment and evaluation within the general education setting. Some New Jersey schools employ these systems. However, the task force found that, with more consistent application of these programs statewide, our schools could reduce the need for classification at later stages. Such “preventive” approaches would also rectify another long-standing problem: the disproportionate number of minorities and English language learners classified as learning-disabled.

Another way to reduce classification involves the simple, basic building block of education: Reading.

The task force focused on the work of noted educational researcher Nathan Levenson, who stresses that a “relentless focus on reading instruction” can reduce the number of children requiring special education services. When reading improves, Levenson found, classification rates drop. Levenson is the managing director of the District Management Council, an organization that partners with public school district leaders to improve student outcomes, operational efficiency, and resource allocation

To promote literacy, the task force recommends that the federal government allow more flexibility in using special-education funds for supplemental reading and math programs in more inclusive settings.

Increasing shared services is another focus of the task force. Each year, our state loses approximately $10 million available through the federal Special Education Medicaid Initiative. For many school districts, the labor-intensive application process outweighs any financial benefit they would receive through the federal program. To maximize New Jersey’s return on this initiative, the task force recommends establishment of a shared application process at the county or regional level, enabling all districts to participate in the program.

Creating regional child-study teams and improving district- and state-level data collection were also among the task force’s extensive list of recommendation.

The overriding theme of the group’s work is simple and honorable: special education and general education should not be viewed as two separate systems. Instead, special education should be considered a continuum of interventions, programs and services that any student would receive to meet his or her unique needs, delivered in as inclusive a way as is possible. In other words, special education is a service; it’s not a place to put students.

Lawrence S. Feinsod, Ed.D., is executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association.

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