Sweeney Looks to Help Districts with Special Education Costs

John Mooney | January 8, 2020 | Education
Tuition for out-of-district placement of some students often runs well into six figures
Senate President Steve Sweeney addresses NJ Schools Boards Association’s delegate assembly.

The high cost of special education in New Jersey is getting renewed attention, as Senate President Steve Sweeney presses the state to do more to help districts pay for students with severe disabilities.

Sweeney in an address to delegates of the New Jersey School Boards Association last month pledged to push Trenton to meet its full share of so-called “extraordinary aid” to districts for special education costs exceeding $40,000 a pupil in an in-district program and $55,000 for an outside program.

As he did for this year’s budget, he said he would support adding another $50 million in the next state budget — and at least two budgets thereafter — to meet 100% of what the state is obligated to pay under the two-decade-old law that set up the fund. Under the law, the state is supposed to pay up to 95% of those costs above the thresholds.

Spending $250 million this year, the state now pays about two-thirds of what it’s supposed to for these extreme costs. That’s on top of the $940 million provided by the state in general special education aid.

“Each year we intend to put $50 million in and that should help [ease] the pressure of local districts,” he said. “This is money that no one ever anticipated was coming.”

Long an advocate for special education as a parent of a child with special needs, Sweeney said he wants to ease the tension that arises with the high costs of serving these students, and said the state can and should do more.

“We want to make sure that you don’t look at people with disabilities as a problem,” he told the delegates. “You want to look at people with disabilities like everyone else.”

Long a contentious issue

But the rising costs of special education — and specifically those of specialized outside schools where tuition costs can reach six figures — has been a contentious issue for years, if not decades.

Sweeney has put forward a package of special education proposals as part of his “Path to Progress” campaign for easing local property taxes and the state’s fiscal squeeze in general.

A second proposal from the Senate president — to add administrative law judges specifically to handle disputes over special education placements and services — was passed by the state Senate and Assembly in December. That expansion is aimed at easing the backlog and delay in the cases, which itself is driving up costs.

Gov. Phil Murphy has yet to weigh in on either proposal, and nothing is certain in what has become a running feud between him and Sweeney over a host of matters in the last two years.

But Murphy did sign off on Sweeney’s push to add $50 million for extraordinary aid in this year’s state budget, and advocates are hopeful he would do so again.

‘Complex, severe disabilities’

In the meantime, the pressure on districts is hardly ebbing, with the state in the last month releasing the latest approved individual tuition amounts for private special-education schools serving many of these most significant needs. They ranged from $50,000 for a school serving students with learning and behavioral disabilities to more than $145,000 for the Somerset Hills Learning Institute, a Bedminster school for students with autism spectrum disorder.

“Generally these students have complex, severe disabilities,” said Gerald Thiers, executive director of the association that represents many of the private schools.

“It comes down to the intensity of the services provided these students,” he said. “In those services, students with severe autism, for example, in order for them to progress, sometimes the staff ratio would be as much as one-to-one. It’s what is necessary to get the outcomes we are looking for.”

Michael Vrancik, the chief lobbyist for the state School Boards Association, said the tensions are real in districts facing a choice between serving students in outside schools or bringing them back into more inclusive settings.

But he also said the state by its own admission is falling short in meeting its obligation in addressing these extraordinary costs, whatever the placements, and the additional money is welcome relief.

“In all the mix of priorities that are out there facing the state, the fact they can squeeze out $50 million to do this, we’re quite happy with it,” he said.

Still, others said it’s not enough to meet what are rising needs. A coalition of education groups has formed to press for full-funding of the extraordinary aid, as well as the state’s whole funding formula for schools.

“The whole formula has been underfunded from the outset, but the Extraordinary Aid provision was supposed to have been a safety valve,” said Brenda Considine, coordinator of the NJ Coalition for Special Education Funding Reform. “That too, has never been fully funded, so districts are having a hard time, especially when it comes to serving those with more complex needs.

“Full funding for extraordinary costs is a good starting point, but it is not the whole solution.” she said. “We still need structural changes to the special education funding system, and full funding of the formula.”