CAN IT BE STOPPED?: The cost of education in Vermont continues to climb high above what taxpayers can afford.
By Bruce Parker | Vermont Watchdog
Special education spending is headed higher again this year. But not to worry. Leaders of Vermont’s public schools say the money’s well spent.
Amid calls for property tax and education reform, little attention is being paid to Vermont’s spending on special education. This school year, the Agency of Education projects it will spend $306 million on special education — a 12.3 percent increase over the $272 million spent in 2013.
“I know that people really question the dollars we invest in special ed. I would tell you that we are investing in something that has an incredible return,” said Shelley Mathias, principal of Edmunds Elementary School in Burlington.
Mathias said offering customized plans for every child with a learning disability practically pays for itself over time.
“People who would have been functionally illiterate in my generation, or mathematically illiterate, would have struggled to earn a living. Now, because of special ed, we have a lot more people who actually can go out and earn a decent living and go on to college.”
Unlike student enrollment overall, which has declined about 6 percent during the past six years, the number of special education students with individualized education plans (IEPs) has remained steady. Vermont has 13,885 students in special education.
To qualify for an individualized education plan in Vermont, students must pass through four assessments or “gates.” If the assessments reveal a student has a documented disability that gets in the way of learning — a condition called adverse effect — a team of educators, parents, health professionals and counselors is formed to create a unique curriculum for the child.
Vermont has no limit on how much money can be spent on an individual student. In 2013, actual spending on special education averaged about $20,000 per student. The money comes from a mix of federal, state and local dollars as required by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
“The state doesn’t provide special education, the state merely funds special education in certain percentages,” Rob Bliss, assistant superintendent of Rutland City Public Schools, explained.
“It changes year to year, but between 51 percent and 54 percent of documented special education expenses are funded by the state via a number of grants that they get from the federal government.”
Despite the state-federal funding formula, budgeting for special education is a challenge. Each year, all districts and supervisory unions are required to provide a coordinated service plan to the Agency of Education. Since plans are created more than a year in advance, principals like Mathias are left to offer best-guess estimates based on current head counts.
“Because of our governance structure in this state, special ed can leave a community really exposed, (especially) if you have a student with intensive special needs come into your community that you didn’t budget for,” Mathias said.
“If a student moves to your community two days before school starts and they need to be placed in a special school, and let’s say that school costs $120,000, if you didn’t budget for it, you’re on the hook for the first 47 percent of $50,000 and 10 percent of everything else. For a small community, that can have a really huge impact.”
Law requires that schools serve all kids and follow the individual education plan as written. As a result, districts are put in the position of having to spend funds they did not necessarily raise with their taxes.
“It’s difficult because Vermont is a fairly transient state — kids move in, kids move out. You could have a family move into your district, and if three out of four kids in the family have special needs, that could change your budget significantly,” said Ernest C Wheeler, a special education consultant at the Agency of Education.
The high cost of special education is driven even higher by the fact that Vermont is known as an “inclusion state,” meaning special education students are educated in the same classroom setting as general education peers.
“If you have an intensive needs kiddo, such as a kid who might need really specialized care — like occupational therapy, a behaviorist, all kinds of things — their cost is high, Mathias said.
“It depends on the individual kid. Some kids might be getting speech services 20 minutes for two days a week. That’s not that expensive. Some kids might be getting a lot more services.”
Mathias says the money is worth it, however, since kids who benefit from special ed have a better chance at being employed for the rest of their lives.
“In terms of bang for your buck, overall, I think if you consider that kids are in school for 13 years but could be employed for the next 50, (it’s) the difference between someone being employable and not employable. … So it’s in the best interest of our society to work really hard with special ed, and try to keep it in balance with general ed.”
Contact Bruce Parker at firstname.lastname@example.org