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Opinion

The Podium

Lawmakers should fully fund special education

Massachusetts is known for its commitment to education, and that’s something to be proud of. Nothing of value comes cheap, however, and continuing to fund our educational system is an ever-increasing challenge during these turbulent economic times. With that in mind, now take a moment to consider our students with disabilities. They have added struggles in their lives and in school, but with access to highly skilled teachers and educational technologies, they have a real opportunity for hope and achievement.

As our leaders on Beacon Hill continue their work on the FY’14 budget, we urge them to consider the students at special education schools in Massachusetts. After years of inequality between state spending on regular education versus special education, it is time to restore funds for special education schools that prepare students with complex needs for adult life. Whether studying science, math, reading and writing, or social skills, children with special needs learn best from highly trained professional educators. Many times, those specially trained teachers are not available in the regular school systems.

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Providing expert education and learning tools is, indeed, costly. For that reason, the budget line item called the “special education circuit breaker account” was established in 2004. This line item provides tuition reimbursements from the state to school districts to help pay for the cost of sending public students with complex learning needs to specialized private schools. (State funds cover only a portion of the cost. At Perkins, private donations make up the rest.) These schools deliver not only high-quality, but also cost-effective special education services to the Commonwealth. A recent cost comparison shows that Massachusetts special education school costs are actually 35 percent lower than that of public schools and collaboratives, after differences in staff compensation, length of the school year and hidden costs to taxpayers are considered.

Parents and families of students at specialized schools have high hopes and dreams for their children’s futures. They do not ask for exceptional privileges for their children, but they rightfully expect them to get an even chance to learn and realize their potentials. Every year of school is critical for all of our children.

We thank the Senate Ways and Means Committee for increasing the special education circuit breaker account. This brings us one step closer to providing the highly trained teachers and cutting edge technologies necessary to meet the ever-changing needs of children enrolled in specialized schools.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee proposed budget released in mid-May increases the special education circuit breaker account by $22.4 million to $252.8 million or 10.7 percent over the FY’13 appropriation. That is still below the $261 million recommended by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in order for school districts to receive full reimbursement. All those whose lives are touched by a child who requires the special education services the circuit breaker fund provides anxiously wait and hope for that account to be fully funded during the Conference Committee deliberations currently underway. These children can thrive with the kind of education specialized schools offer. Beyond a moral obligation, the state has a legal obligation outlined in the Education Reform Act of 1993.

Now, we look to the Budget Conferees to work together to equalize the funding for special education with general education, or Chapter 70, by advocating to increase the funding for the special education circuit breaker account to the Senate allocation of $252.8 million. This will ensure that the account is adequately funded to provide the financial support to cities and towns so vital to students who attend specialized schools, such as Perkins. Fully funding the circuit breaker provides the opportunity that fuels the dreams of these students who are striving to become productive members of society, to live as independently as possible and to contribute to our economy with meaningful jobs.

Steven Rothstein is president of Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown.
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