In pandemic school year, special education gets renewed scrutiny

Murphy agrees to extend services for some students while advocates press for more funding
Credit: Nicole Mays from Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
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Serving close to 200,000 students with a wide range of disabilities and needs, New Jersey’s special education system is getting a lot of new attention — and likely funding — from Trenton. They come as the Murphy administration and the Legislature look to expand services and capacity in the wake of the pandemic.

On Wednesday, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation that took the unprecedented step of extending certain services for students past the threshold age of 21 due to the damage done in the past year.

Students turning 21 — or “aging out” — this year through 2023 would be permitted an additional year of services, at an estimated cost of $600 million. The move spoke to the extraordinary steps being taken to address the challenges faced by thousands of families during the pandemic.

“We recognize that the pandemic has been especially hard on the roughly 8,700 students this will impact and who have may not have the full set of transitional skills and job training they need for adulthood,” Murphy said Wednesday.

“I am pleased to take this step to help secure a better future for them and their families,” he said.

More funding in budget?

There may be more. The ongoing state budget talks could also bring more money to districts for their most intensive special education services, as legislative leaders press the state to fulfill its obligations for the students with the most significant and expensive needs.

Murphy has already proposed an additional $25 million in this special aid for students when services cost more than $45,000 a year, and full funding of the obligation could take up another $100 million. Legislative leaders are expected to unveil their budget plans on Monday.

But even with the increased funding, this is not going to be an easy time for special education in New Jersey, or any state for that matter. These programs and the students they serve have been hit hard by the pandemic, which forced them to rely on remote instruction.

Legal troubles brewing

In a long history of legal challenges, New Jersey’s education department is already facing a new complaint from advocates alleging the state has failed to adequately monitor some of the very services it now looks to expand.

The complaint from the Education Law Center, the statewide advocacy group, said the state had failed to require districts to provide mandated services agreed upon in individualized education plans (IEPs), among other charges.

“Parents who filed complaints with the (department) about missed IEP services during the pandemic have gotten nowhere,” said Rebecca Spar, ELC trustee and a leading special education law expert.

Make no mistake, the latest law extending services was a big victory for special-needs families and advocates who had raised concerns about students aging out since the start of the pandemic more than a year ago.

The loss of in-person instructions and support was especially harmful for these students; remote contact was not an adequate replacement, and their families led organized campaigns to make sure they would not be penalized by it.

The bill faced considerable debate and discussion, but ultimately passed with near unanimous bipartisan support two weeks ago. At the time, the biggest concern raised among districts was the potential cost, with the administration estimating that up to 8,700 students may qualify over the three years at a cost of $600 million.

Dipping into federal pandemic funds

Murphy eventually signed the bill Wednesday, and settled the funding question by saying that the entire cost would be paid out of federal pandemic funds that will amount to more than $2.4 billion overall to districts to schools.

“Although the bill authorizes the use of state funding, I have been advised by the Department of Education that the state is unable to fund this provision of services through any means other than federal dollars,” Murphy’s signing statement reads. “For this reason, the bill will be funded entirely through the (federal) American Rescue Plan State Fiscal Recovery Fund.

The signing brought widespread applause from legislative leaders and education groups, including those in the special education community. But a new twist emerged: The signing may have come too late for some students already facing graduation decisions.

Peg Kinsell, policy director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, said her organization co-sponsored town halls to build support for the bill’s passage, and she was pleased it eventually was signed — but with a caveat.

“I’d be a lot happier if it happened a few weeks ago,” she said in an interview. “Parents were struggling, getting graduation notices. It would have been a lot smoother if it happened earlier.”

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