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Op-Ed: Challenged by School-Funding Do-Over?

For starters, let’s help our kids — let’s finally fix special-education aid

lynne strickland
Lynne Strickland

The hot-button issue of the day is fairness in school funding. Parents want better programs and services for their kids; businesses need highly skilled workers; and taxpayers are concerned with ever-growing property-tax burdens.     

The last time the state tackled school funding in a comprehensive way, it took many years of planning, deliberation, and negotiation. But today, all sides are feeling the pressure to fix the problem and fix it now.  However, this need for speed can actually be a recipe for inaction given conflicting policy goals, political agendas, and a general lack of understanding of the issues. We propose establishing a more achievable goal.  One that brings greater fairness while at the same time helping some of our most deserving students. 

The way special-education aid is calculated and distributed stands out like a sore thumb. From the get-go, the SFRA (School Funding Reform Act) treated categorical special-education aid differently from prior formulas by not basing this aid on an individual child’s need. The stated intent of the SFRA was to distribute aid to all school districts in an equitable and predictable way that considers the needs of all students, including at-risk students, limited English proficient students, and students with special-education needs. Many laud the SFRA as the formula in which the “money follows the child.” Except in the SRFA, the money has never followed the individual child eligible for special-education services, nor did the designers intend it to. This is a wrong that cries for correction.

In addition, when the formula was initiated, the amount of categorical special-education aid was reduced by approximately $200 million. While there has been continued growth in special-education costs to deliver appropriate programs, categorical special-education aid, alone, is still approximately $161 million less than it was in 2007-2008 (Appendix D, Table 1 Special Education Task Force Report 2015).

If we address this flaw, the individual student’s needs will be more appropriately addressed, and the financial support for all children in a local school district and its community will be stabilized.

The bottom line is this: Special-education categorical aid should 1) be distributed to each student that qualifies for special-education services (the funding should follow that child) and 2) all funding earmarked as special-education aid should be dedicated to that direct purpose (to help both the eligible students and the programs school districts must offer to support those students).

The state should fully fund high-cost placements often called “extraordinary aid” to alleviate the pressure on school districts that a high-needs student often creates.  Currently, extraordinary special-education aid is funded at an approximate 60 percent level. For example, the placement of a single student in a private residential school could cost over $100,000, and on occasion more than $200,000.  If the state does not step in and course-correct the underfunding of these required expenses, the district might need to fire two teachers just to balance the budget, as has happened in the past.

In New Jersey, the programs for students eligible for special-education and related services are supported by state aid and local property tax revenue, with additional funding provided by the federal government. However, the shortfall in promised funding by the federal government appropriated for the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) continues to impose a heavy burden on local boards of education, as well as on New Jersey taxpayers, and the state of New Jersey.

The SFRA cutback on special-education categorical aid impacts all students in New Jersey public schools, and it impacts all local property taxpayers to as well. Bear in mind that fiscal constraints at the state level, restrictive budget caps on special-education services, and pressures on local property taxes compound pressure not only on special-education funding, but also on regular education funding as well.

There is added heft to these suggestions: The Special Education Task Force 2015 believed that an effective formula must provide additional cost factors based on the actual number of special-education students in each district rather than applying the state average classification rate:

“ … The New Jersey legislature should review the impact of SFRA by directing the Department of Education to analyze and reevaluate the state funding formula and create a formula that stabilizes general and special education funding and ensures that state aid follows (individual) students eligible for special education and related services as well as general education students … ” (The task force for Improving Special Education for Public School Students 2015 passed by unanimous vote.)

Importantly, fixing special-education aid in this way will help offset local property-tax burdens directly. Districts and their communities must provide the requisite funds to implement each student’s IEP (individual education plan), regardless of any lack of special-education funding provided by the state. Today, property taxes must take up the slack.

Most importantly, however, is this: special education programs share a common denominator in that students in need live in every school district in New Jersey.

Lynne Strickland is currently managing partner of School House Strategies (SHS), an education consulting firm. As former executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, Lynne brings a combined 25 years of school-funding formula expertise to today’s dialogue in Trenton. An appointee to the task force for Improving Special Education for Public School Students 2015, Lynne also served as chairman of the task force school-funding workgroup.

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