Every spring, too many town meetings have become battle zones over the rising cost of special education. And yet Governor Deval Patrick last week cut state aid for special education — by $11.5 million or 5 percent. The Governor cut special education funding $96 million, or 42%, in FY 09 and this year was the first in which the funding was restored – until last week’s cut. What is the message that the cut sends to school districts and families?
Between 2001 and 2010, special education costs in Massachusetts increased 57 percent, compared to 42 percent for all public education. School budgets are being stretched and families of children with disabilities are being blamed for taking more than their fair share of the school budget. What is little known, however, is that costs are increasing due to a significant increase in the number of children with severe disabilities who require costly services.
What is causing the rise in children with severe disabilities? Obesity, diabetes, binge drinking, smoking, pregnancies at advanced age, fertility treatments and use of elective cesarean deliveries have all contributed to the problem. A recent UN report, ‘‘Born Too Soon,’’ found that the United States has a higher rate of preterm births than Somalia and 130 other countries. Since 1990, preterm births increased 40 percent in Massachusetts vs. 17 percent nationally and low birth weight births increased 32 percent vs. 17 percent nationally. Conversely, advances in neonatal medicine reduced the infant mortality rate 30 percent in Massachusetts vs. 2 percent nationally. As a result, there are now more children who are surviving preterm birth, but with a much greater risk of significant disability.
Since 1992, we have seen an increase of over 22,000 children in Massachusetts with moderate to severe disabilities enrolled in early intervention services, while the 0 - 3 population in our state declined by over 30,000. School districts are also reporting an astonishing increase in severe disabilities. From 2003 to 2011, the number of students with autism, health, communication, and neurological impairments increased by 30,246.
The impact on school budgets struggling to fund complex and intensive special education services is undercutting districts’ ability to educate all students. The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center’s report, “Cutting Class,’’ documented a $1 billion gap in state aid for special education. “Due to a range of factors, notably an increasing proportion of high-needs special education students, the foundation budget significantly understates the true cost of staffing in-district SPED programs and paying tuitions for specialized out-of-district placements.” School districts have been unable to implement important provisions of the 1993 Education Reform Act, such as providing three extra teachers for every 100 low-income students and expanding instructional time.
Clearly, more needs to be done to close the $1 billion dollar funding gap for special education and the recent cut sends the wrong message. Families of children with disabilities already face significant challenges without having to shoulder the blame for public school budget constraints. If we are to educate all children adequately and maintain the competitive advantage of first in the country student performance, the Commonwealth must do more to help districts pay for the intensive services required by children with severe disabilities.
James Major is executive director of the Massachusetts Association of 766 Approved Private Schools.