To address the continuing pressure that special education places on local district budgets, the New Jersey School Boards Association embarked on a major study in January 2013 with the creation of its Special Education Task Force. “The goal is to reduce special education costs to local school districts without diminishing the quality of needed services,” said Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod, NJSBA executive director, at the announcement of the initiative. “There is a dire need to develop strategies that will maintain quality services, without negatively affecting resources for general education programming.”
Appointed by John Bulina, the Association’s president, the NJSBA Special Education Task Force is comprised of local board of education members, chief school administrators and school business administrators.
The task force was charged with reviewing the state’s current process for funding special education; studying other states’ systems of providing special education; exploring alternative funding methods; and identifying cost-efficient strategies to fund and deliver special education services.
The Task Force concluded its work in April with the release of a 120-page report that includes 20 recommendations for strategies to improve delivery of services and control costs. It goes beyond a list of recommended “how-to’s” and takes a stand on how we should perceive special, and public, education. Public education should not be viewed as two separate systems – general education and special education – but rather as one continuum of instruction, programs, interventions, and services that respond to individual student needs.
In other words, as experts and advocates advised the Task Force, special education is a service provided to children, not a separate place to put them. And that, in fact, is the title of the final Task Force report, “Special Education: A Service, Not a Place.”
Current NJSBA policy is based on the belief that all New Jersey educationally disabled students should receive an appropriate public education within our state and, where possible, within the general education environment. The task force was also charged with recommending changes to NJSBA’s Manual of Policies and Positions on Education if appropriate.
A Quick Look Back at Special Ed Funding
As far back as 1911, state aid was established to cover the excess cost of special education, that is, those costs that exceed expenditures for regular education. State funding initially covered half the cost of special education. Later, the funding was based on the category of disability. In 1996, state funding shifted from categorical aid allocated according to program to a distribution method based on four tiers defined by disability. Additional aid for extraordinary circumstances was added in 1996 and refined by a law enacted in 2002. State funding for speech-language services was built into general education aid because it was such a common service that separate funding was not needed.
Since 2001, special education expenditures have increased faster than state funding. As a result, the percentage of special education costs covered by state aid dropped by about one-quarter. Additionally, the 2 percent local levy cap law eliminated the ability of school districts to obtain waivers for additional local spending to offset the lack of state aid.
Federal aid was initially based on a per-pupil reimbursement but changed in the 1990s to a formula that included a base amount, a factor to reflect enrollment growth, and a poverty factor. When the federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), was first enacted in 1975, the federal government promised to cover 40 percent of the cost of implementing required special education services. However, the amount actually covered by federal funding is less than one-tenth of required special education services.
In 2007, the NJSBA commissioned a study, titled “Financing Special Education in New Jersey.” This year-long research project included statistical analysis of state and federal data, independent data collection, and on-site visits to school districts. The study found that the growth in special education costs, which then totaled $3.3 billion for roughly 240,000 students, could be largely attributed to tuition and transportation for out-of district programs.
According to the study, the intensity of special education programs had increased over the previous decade, with more students placed in out-of-district autism programs and related services. For local school districts, that trend is critical because, as indicated in the study, 57 percent of special education costs are borne by local property taxpayers. The remainder comes from the state (34 percent) and the federal government (9 percent).
In 2008, New Jersey enacted a new school funding formula, which made changes in how the state provides special education aid. The School Funding Reform Act bases one-third of special education funding – that is, the proportion awarded to districts regardless of wealth – on the average percentage of students that receive special education services statewide, which is 14.69 percent. In fact, the number of classified students in an individual district could be far greater. In addition, the formula distributes the other two-thirds of state funding on ability to pay, rather than the number of students served, thereby driving up the local share of special education costs in many districts.
Focus of Project
NJSBA’s Special Education Task Force began its work in January 2013. During its deliberations, the task force consulted with national and state special education experts, key personnel in the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE), special education advocates, practitioners, and academics.
In addition, as part of its work, the task force conducted two surveys: a national survey looking at alternative methods of funding special education, such as lotteries, business fees, and foundation grants; and a statewide survey of superintendents and special education directors that focused on staffing and expenditures.
As the task force conducted its research a few themes emerged that can point the way to improving academic outcomes of special education students.
RTI The efficacy of a practice called Response to Intervention (RTI) is one such idea. Response to Intervention is a multi-faceted approach to the early identification and support of students with learning and behavior needs. Struggling learners are provided with interventions by general education teachers, special educators and specialists. A student’s progress is closely monitored and education decisions about the interventions are based on an individual student’s response to instruction. More information on RTI.
Continuum of Programs
As mentioned previously, the task force believes that special education should be viewed as “a place to visit, not a place to live.” This perception requires us to no longer consider the education system as one that is bifurcated into “special” and “general” sectors. The new vision defines special education as a continuum of interventions and services that any student receives to meet his or her unique needs.
In the task force’s 2013 survey of superintendents and special education directors, “personnel” was the most frequently cited cost driver. The task force recognizes the impact of higher classification rates on staffing and, consequently, special education costs.
The task force believes providing related services on a regional basis, rather than an individual district basis, would reduce costs, support inclusion and allow school districts to direct more resources to the delivery of classroom-level instruction. The state should provide incentives for sharing on regional or county bases while removing any regulatory and financial obstacles.
To address over-classification of students, the state should develop a multi-tiered system of supports such as Response to Intervention, I&RS (intervention and referral services), or a comparable model providing free access to materials and technical assistance.
Such an approach would identify students with learning needs at an early stage and implement strategies within the general education setting, while providing ongoing assessment and evaluation. It would also address the disproportionate classification of minority students. In addition, this system would present an alternative method for acquiring data to determine a student’s need for special education.
To control and reduce costs, the state and local school districts should conduct school- and district-based analyses of staffing and service levels. In addition, the state and federal governments should establish regional, state and national benchmarks that identify the optimal utilization of special education financial and human resources.
Regional Delivery Incentives
The NJDOE and local districts should explore a voluntary regionalized special education model/shared services model, in which the county special services school districts, the educational services commissions, and the jointure commissions serve as coordinated hubs for special education and related services.
Services provided through these models could include the exploration and implementation of a “Regionalized Diagnostic Model” in which regional child study teams complete educational evaluations and give results and findings to the local education agency for implementation. By placing diagnostic functions at the regional or county level, more time would be available for team members to work directly with parents, teachers and students. Other examples include: transportation, personnel, professional development, technology, preschool programming and other services that support inclusive practices.
Encourage Local Initiative
To reduce costs and improve efficiency and quality, New Jersey should provide financial incentives for districts to work on shared service models among local districts, county and regional entities.
Economies of scale often improve programmatic processes and outcomes in addition to being cost-effective. An example is a recent study done by the North Hunterdon-Voorhees Regional School District. The report found that wide disparities in special education classification and staffing patterns exist among the elementary-level districts whose students attend the regional high schools. The study recommended consolidation of policies, procedures and practices related to the identification and evaluation of students with disabilities. The districts are currently working on developing a common policy manual for this purpose.
To maximize reimbursement under the federal Special Education Medicaid Initiative (SEMI), the state and local school districts should explore the potential effectiveness of creating consortia to fulfill the administratively burdensome filing process. In addition, the state should streamline current procedures to minimize the administrative burden on school districts.
Currently, a number of eligible districts opt not to file for reimbursement because the resources expended on this outweigh any benefit. Federal revenue that would offset the cost of special education is therefore not received by New Jersey.
The task force also recommends that the state eliminate any impediments to the use of regional and county service models. The state should consider sponsoring a study on ways to further promote participation by governmental agencies in shared services.
For example, in 2007, NJSBA conducted a study of shared services among school districts and municipalities. Researchers found that a provision of administrative code addressing placement in the least restrictive environment was being interpreted as limiting the use of county and regional providers. The language at issue remains in current regulations and should be reviewed and clarified so that it is not misinterpreted as restricting the shared delivery of programming through county and regional providers.
The NJDOE should continue to encourage shared transportation services through initiatives such as common county calendars and incentives.
The task force’s 2013 survey indicates that there is room for growth in shared special education services. Although a wide majority of respondents indicate that they currently share transportation services, 12.2 percent identified transportation problems, such as distance and school start and end times, as obstacles to increasing shared services.
A 2007 New Jersey statute places the burden of proof in complaints challenging a child’s IEP (individual education program) on the school district, rather than on the party bringing the complaint. The state should amend the existing statute and place the burden of proof in disputes over individual education programs on the party bringing the complaint, rather than always on the school district.
In the task force’s survey of superintendents and special education directors, more than 38 percent of respondents cited the “adjudication process” as an area requiring legislative and regulatory change. Most frequently cited was a need to place the burden of proof on the party bringing the complaint, the usual standard in legal proceedings. In the past, school officials and school board attorneys have expressed concern that the 2007 statute would increase legal fees and staff time to review and prepare documents and make “fear of litigation” a factor in a school board reaching an agreement on an IEP challenge.
In an effort to improve student outcomes and determine adequate funding, the state should identify the resources, programs, and delivery models that contribute to improved student performance. In addition, the state should provide technical assistance and funding to promote the implementation of these identified delivery models.
Funding: Reliable Expenditure Data
The task force recommends that local school districts work with their auditors to put into place processes that ensure the consistency and accurate coding of special education expenditures and reported information. This recommendation would give school districts the data needed to better manage resources. A district-level calculation of special education costs is critical because of the variability in the level of programs and services provided to students with IEPs across the state. Current state-level data collection does not reflect the differentiation of special education costs in some categories. Local school districts would be able to conduct more specific analyses.
In the course of its work, the task force also found a lack of reliable statewide expenditure data for special education. This recommendation would also provide more accurate statewide data.
Funding: Medical Needs
The task force recommends seeking a change in federal law so that the cost of some related services, regardless of where the services are provided, would be considered “medical,” rather than educational.
The cost of related medical needs diverts resources that should be available for special education programming. By appropriately classifying certain services as “medical,” rather than educational, school districts would be able to obtain reimbursement from health insurers.
Funding: Extraordinary Aid
The state should ensure that school districts and local property taxpayers are insulated from the financial impact of low-incidence, high-cost placements by providing adequate Extraordinary Special Education Cost Aid.
In a 2000 report, the NJSBA Special Education and School Finance Committees called for state payment of the full excess costs of special education. Expansion of the Extraordinary Special Education Costs Aid in 2002 represented a major step toward that goal. In recent years, however, the state has limited district access to extraordinary cost aid by increasing the threshold for its receipt.
The federal IDEA should allow greater flexibility in the use of funds for supplemental literacy and math programs in more inclusive settings.
The task force focused on the work of Nathan Levenson, whose research stresses incorporating a “relentless focus on reading instruction” into special education policies and practices. Levenson is a former Massachusetts superintendent, a managing director of the District Management Council, a consulting firm, and the author of a study, “Something Has Got to Change: Rethinking Special Education.” He finds that when reading improves, classification rates drop. Levenson cites recommendations of the U.S. Department of Education’s “What Works Clearinghouse,” which include “clear and rigorous grade level expectations for reading proficiency” and “early identification of struggling readers, starting in kindergarten.”
To support and achieve ambitious learning goals, special education funding mechanisms must be restructured to support an outcomes-based paradigm.
Special education funding systems are complex, intricate and input-based, not student-outcome centered. A system that rewards districts and schools that meet ambitious learning goals, prioritizes resources, models fairness, transparency, predictability and equity, decreases achievement gaps and provides the opportunity for the development of local educators to manage resources effectively is needed. This could be achieved through a funding mechanism that is sensitive to the legitimate variation in student needs.
Funding: Alternative Sources
The state should explore predictable and dedicated alternative supplemental methods of special education funding, including lottery, business fees, insurance, and grants.
The 2013 task force survey of state education departments and school boards associations identified five states that have alternative funding methods for special education. A New York official, for example, estimated that $1 billion in lottery proceeds is allocated to special education in his state.
School districts and regional centers should provide targeted professional development to avoid IDEA violations. Such training, done regularly, would prevent costly procedural and substantive errors, reduce legal exposure and promote and preserve a positive working relationship among districts, parents and the children that they serve.
Technical Assistance: IDEA Compliance
The NJDOE should continue to expand professional development and technical assistance to school districts on “applying scientifically-based findings to facilitate systemic changes related to the provision of services to children with disabilities, in policy, procedure, practice, and the training and use of personnel.”
Areas of importance include understanding neurodevelopmental variation, establishing multi-tiered intervention systems, creating an inclusive school culture and climate, monitoring progress, and developing positive parent-educator relationships. Districts that have large numbers of students with IEPs in separate schools and classrooms should receive technical assistance to ensure adequate supports in the least restrictive environment.
Technical Assistance: Facilitating District Savings
The state should redouble its efforts to assist districts in creating efficiencies and improving program quality.
A law enacted in 2007 calls on the NJDOE county offices of education to “facilitate shared special education services within the county including, but not limited to, direct services, personnel development, and technical assistance.” Other provisions of the law direct the county offices to work with districts to develop in-district special education programs and services including providing training in inclusive education, positive behavior supports, transition to adult life, and parent-professional collaboration; and to provide assistance to districts in budgetary planning for resource realignment and reallocation to direct special education resources into the classroom. However, state assistance in these areas has varied among the regions and has been affected by staffing changes in the county offices.
Professional Development: Board Members
Local school board members should receive training that includes exposure to the legal, financial and programming aspects of special education to help promote the achievement of all of the students in their districts.
Teacher Preparation Programs
The state should require that teacher preparation programs include content in adapting curriculum, instruction and assessment to meet the needs of all learners in an inclusive classroom. Teachers-in-training should have ample opportunity to learn and apply the instructional methods associated with multiple intelligences, multi-sensory instruction, differentiated instruction, intensive instruction, Universal Design for Learning, curriculum-based assessment, and assistive technology. They should also be equipped to establish learning environments that maximize attention and learning through the careful application of positive behavior supports, and effective communication. Further, teacher preparation programs for those individuals earning the Pre-K-3 or elementary education (K-6) certifications should include content in teaching students with reading disabilities.
The NJSBA Special Education Task Force also made recommendations for specific changes in NJSBA policy statements. The NJSBA Delegate Assembly will consider those changes at its May 2014 meeting. Those recommendations, as well as the full text of the report and the supporting materials for the study are available on the NJSBA website.