First put in place a decade ago, a state fund to help districts pay the big-ticket costs of students with disabilities has never lived up to its billing.
Aptly dubbed “extraordinary aid,” the program called for the state to pay a sizable portion of the costs incurred by children with severe cognitive, physical, and other needs. These commonly can add up to tens of thousands of dollar per child, sometimes topping $100,000.
But from its start in 2003, the program never picked up the percentages it promised, while rising costs put more stress on families and communities.
Last year, for example, the state paid out $165 million to more than 500 districts — a slight decrease from the year before — but accounting for just 77 percent of eligible costs. State spending in the prior year covered 84 percent.
Now, extraordinary aid is back in the spotlight. In a funding report presented to the Legislature last month, state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf proposed adjusting some of the thresholds used to determine the amount each district receives, essentially shifting some of the funding to the more extreme cases.
Among the things that the commissioner is suggesting would be to raise by $5,000 the spending thresholds that trigger additional aid. For instance, the current formula calls for the state to pay 90 percent of costs exceeding $40,000 for a child educated in his or her home district. Cerf would raise the threshold to $45,000.
The threshold for a child enrolled in a private school outside his or her district would be raised from $55,000 to $60,000. The state would then pick up 75 percent of the costs.
But the Education Adequacy Report from Cerf that includes these changes has drawn a quick rebuke from various quarters. Some legislative committees last week said that it is one of several provisions in the proposal that must be revised. And special ed advocates this week contended that it only adds more problems to a flawed and underfunded program.
“There really isn’t good data to support what they are trying to do,” said Brenda Considine, a leader of the state coalition of special education advocacy groups. “Absent any good data, it looks like they are just trying to back into a budget number and reduce the number of districts that would qualify.”
The proposal comes near the end of the Education Adequacy Report. Cerf has also drawn fire for his proposals to reduce the extra aid for general education students who live in poverty and those with limited English skills.
But it is the special education proposal that resonates with many school districts that are growing increasingly stressed as they try to meet costs that can be as unpredictable as they are high.
The extraordinary aid is big dollars for some districts as well, and at least something for virtually every district in the state. Paterson received nearly $10 million over the last three years, but Wayne is not far behind at $6.6 million and Bernards at $6.4 million. More than 40 districts received more than $1 million last year.
The report said the change was meant to serve students who were at the top 5 percent in costs, while previous thresholds had expanded well beyond that.
“By increasing each of the thresholds by $5,000, the Department anticipates that this change will allow for only those students with the highest-cost services to be eligible, and will help ensure that the State can reimburse those costs at the higher rate provided for,” the report read.
At the same time, the report did recommend an increase in the extra funding for special education kids as a whole, by more than $400 per child to $15,337.
In a joint resolution adopted in committee, Democratic legislators hearing the report last week did not object to the special education aid change but said it would limit the money available to districts. They also said it would put them further in a financial bind when budgets are already capped by the state and other costs continue to rise. The resolution demanding revisions to the report will next go to the full Senate and Assembly.
Districts contacted over the last few days gave varying reactions to the change, some saying that it could help those with the highest-need students but others saying it will just mean less of their costs will be eligible for reimbursement.
The state School Boards Association has yet to take a position on the changes, saying it supported increasing the categorical aid but expresses worries about the extraordinary aid proposals. It cited concerns that the program continues to be underfunded, while expensive schools placements continue and often are outside districts’ control.
Still, the strongest opposition has come from advocates worried that the changes are arbitrarily shifting the costs without doing much to help students receive the programming they need.
“They have never fully funded this program, and even with their promises of certain amounts, some are districts are still declined and never told why,” said Considine, coordinator for the New Jersey Coalition for Special Education Funding Reform. “It is very difficult for districts to make long term decisions when funding like this is not predictable.”
Peg Kinsell, public policy director for the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network said she, too, had little faith in the state’s reasoning. Even the additional funds in categorical aid was negligible given that districts can use that state aid for anything in their budgets, special education or not.
“It may sound nice, but since none of that money is dedicated, districts can use it fill any gaps they have,” she said.
As for the extraordinary aid, “to have an arbitrary number [for a threshold] and never even fully fund it, it’s another pipedream,” Kinsell said. “This does nothing to support districts.”