This is one of a series of articles that will focus on the findings and recommendations of the NJSBA-commissioned report, “Financing Special Education in New Jersey.”
Poverty is an “extraneous” factor in special-education classification and should not be part of any state or federal formula used to distribute special education funding, according to an NJSBA-commissioned report on special education funding and practices released in September.
In reaching the conclusion, researchers Dr. Mari Molenaar and Michael Luciano examined the impact of a wealth factor in the distribution of federal special education aid.
Over the past seven years, “federal aid increased, but the formula for dispensing it changed from an amount per student with disabilities to one based on three factors: A base amount; a census factor; and poverty, a factor that may be only tangentially related to disability,” they wrote.
“The change shifted funding toward districts with higher poverty rates and decreased federal aid for more wealthy districts.”
Testing Poverty Factor Molenaar and Luciano noted that the poverty factor was added to the federal aid formula “on the assumption that poverty contributes to disability.”
The researchers, however, tested that hypothesis by examining the percentage of low-income pupils among New Jersey’s general and special education populations, as reported on the Application for State School Aid. (Low-income is defined by eligibility for free or reduced price lunch.)
In 2004, the difference between the percentage of special education students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (23.7%) and general education students from families below the poverty line (20.1%) is just 3.6 points. That difference had been stable for the previous three years.
“The small difference suggests that poverty is not as substantial a contributing cause of disability as has been thought,” wrote Molenaar and Luciano.
Critical Finding That finding formed the basis of one of the report’s recommendations on the special education formula: “The distribution should be done fairly and exclude extraneous factors, such as poverty, that are only tangentially related to the causes of disabling conditions.”
The conclusion is a critical one because the Corzine administration has discussed wealth-based special education funding as a possible element in a new state school funding formula. Unlike the federal government, the state does not currently consider a student’s or a school district’s wealth as factors in distributing special education aid.
The state Legislature is expected to address a new school finance system when it convenes after the November election.
Take the Survey NJSBA’s report, “Financing Special Education in New Jersey," is posted online. In addition, NJSBA members can visit that Web page to take a survey, which asks them to rank, in priority order, some of the special education reforms recommended in the report.