As Gov. Deval Patrick puts the finishing touches on the state budget, Andrew Robbins stands out as a shining example of why we need to continue supporting students with special needs and the highly-skilled teachers and schools who educate them.
Andrew began attending the Cardinal Cushing Centers a year ago. Prior to this, he had been hospitalized for physical aggression and suicidal ideation and spent time at home because the public school could not accommodate his needs. Andrew was also on the verge of health complications due to being overweight.
When he enrolled at the Hanover-based Cardinal Cushing Centers, a state- approved Chapter 766 school for special education, Andrew got the structure, vocational training, and social opportunities he needed. This month, he will transition into a full-time vocational program to learn skills to prepare him for a future job. He recently lost 40 pounds and is active in a variety of sports on campus. Andrew thrives with his fellow residents, engaging socially and has formed true friendships. He was even recently voted junior prom king.
This is this kind of progress we want for all of our students, no matter what challenges they face. And it’s why we are hoping that Patrick will continue to make special education a priority in this year’s budget, so that we’re able to continue making these important investments for Andrew, for all students, and for our future.
Over the years, however, funding for the C766 specialized schools — which provide a top-notch special education to Andrew and the state’s most vulnerable students — has presented challenges to continuing this work. Since 1993, average tuition increases have consistently been below the consumer price index. Most special education schools, nearly 70 percent of maaps (Massachusetts Association of 766 Approved Private Schools) members, also continue to operate at a deficit. That presents them with a further obstacle to provide an increased demand for services.
But we’re slowly bridging the gap. Thanks to a concerted effort by the Legislature and a number of advocates, the state has restored special education cuts made in the 2009 recession. The special education circuit breaker account has been fully-funded and will help local school districts offset the costs of providing education to their most complex students. Both the House and Senate also included in their FY’15 budgets tuition inflation rate increases to help special education schools keep up with rising costs, and that too is very good news.
Since 2003, the number of Massachusetts special needs students has increased by over 6 percent, and the number of children with medical issues, autism, neurological challenges and communication impairments are only continuing to rise. That is the challenge facing all schools and educators and we must continue to invest in cost-effective, innovative programs that prepare students to become productive members of society, hold jobs, contribute to the economy, and live as independently as possible.
Andrew Robbins is on his way toward that, thanks to the investments we’re making in him and students across the Commonwealth. Let’s keep that in mind when it comes down to dollars and good sense for our children.
Larry Sauer is the vice president for student programs and services at the Cardinal Cushing Centers in Hanover and Braintree.