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Task Force’s Report on Special-Education Reforms Calls for Changes

Recommendations include return to state aid based on individual students’ needs, not ‘census-based’ method

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More than two years after its creation, a state task force looking into special-education funding and services in New Jersey has finally issued its report to the Legislature with more than two dozen recommendations, some sweeping and some technical.

Maybe the most significant recommendation made by the 17-member panel of educators, special-needs advocates and others is that lawmakers significantly rewrite the state’s funding law to better distribute special-education aid to school districts.

The 28-page report says the state’s current method of funding special education – based on a statewide average count of students, a so-called “census-based” method – is ineffective and does little to lower special-needs classification rates in the state, one of the aims of the task force’s study.

The report suggested the state go back to providing aid to students based on their individual needs and disabilities.

“This (current) approach has been proven to be misplaced and inappropriate,” the report concludes.

It’s not a new idea, and it was subject of considerable debate when the current School Funding Reform Act was deliberated and enacted in 2008. And what impact the report’s recommendations will have is uncertain – the state Department of Education didn’t even announce its release when the report was sent to the Legislature last Wednesday. The report itself was dated August 2015.

The report’s other recommendations also trod well-traveled ground. For instance, the task force says the state Department of Education should conduct a thorough and annual accounting of what districts spend on special education, echoing a longtime complaint that the state doesn’t even know the full scope of the costs of programs provided for the 200,000 students who are classified.

“The knowledge of actual cost and aid factors is critical for making informed decisions that can stabilize funding for special education programs, including the needs of specific IEPs (individualized education programs),” the report reads.

The report also calls for greater cooperation and partnerships across districts and schools, better training of school leaders when it comes to special-education needs and strategies, and providing stronger guidance to special-education parent advisory committees that are required by the state but are often given little assistance. State officials said the department has since created a best-practices manual for parent groups.

In one interesting recommendation, the task force cites New Jersey’s higher rate of legal disputes between families and schools regarding special education compared to most other states, and recommends that the state track the number of disputes and the associated costs.

“Recognizing the toll that disputes inevitably take on students, parents, and school districts alike, the Task Force recommends taking a closer look at the factors that contribute to disputes and litigation and that affect the cost, length, and outcomes of proceedings to help reduce disputes and improve the state’s dispute resolution system and procedures within the parameters of federal law,” it read.

The release of the report drew little attention, with several special-needs advocates saying they didn’t even know it had been made public.

But some said it underscored important and still unresolved issues raised in previous studies, especially regarding funding disparities and the need for better coordination.

“The recommendations and findings are similar in many ways to those from the last two task force reports,” said Brenda Considine of the Coalition on Special Education Funding Reform, an advocacy group.

“There is clearly a thread of continuity in what the special education community is looking for, and a general consensus about what the major problems are,” she said in an email. “The question remains: Can government leaders develop public policy to make meaningful change?”

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