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Saturday, May 23, 2015

Facing the New Realities of Special Education

From the MetroWest Daily News 


By James Major
Guest Columnist

May 20, 2015

Each year at this time, it is not uncommon to hear about the challenges that cities, towns, schools, the state, and other entities grapple with in planning their budgets for the next fiscal year, set to begin July 1. Fixed costs, maintenance costs, and health insurance increases are commonly-heard terms at meetings in all corners of the commonwealth, from Statehouse budget meetings to city council and town meetings, and school committee and board meetings in various communities.

It is no secret that the cost of providing high-quality, cost-effective special education services to students with special needs also remains a topic of discussion among these leaders, especially given the dramatic increase in the number of severely disabled children. From 2010 to 2013, students with health and medical-related disabilities, for example, increased by 42 percent, and students with autism by 50 percent.

To compound this problem, the number of children with moderate to severe disabilities, aged 0 to 3, in early intervention services continues to increase and has grown more than five-fold in Massachusetts from 6,000 to 32,000 from 1992 to 2014. Children born at low birth weight or those born prematurely are surviving in higher numbers due to advances in neonatal care and are far more likely to require intensive, highly specialized and costly services for years to come.

These increases prompt a number of questions:

How do we, as a Commonwealth, successfully provide a high-quality education to students with special needs while doing so in a cost-effective manner?

How do we help our neighbors understand the costs of educating students with increasingly complex, and medical, needs who may require a school setting that operates 24/7, 365 days a year?

And, how do we ensure that all students have access to school programs that will prepare them for life after school, become productive members of society and contribute to our economy?

MAAPS member Chapter 766 (C766) private special education schools, which are approved by the state to serve students with exceptional special needs, are committed to this work and have long partnered with local school districts to best serve the commonwealth’s neediest students. C766 schools also operate with a structure that allows them to cost 35 percent less than public schools and collaborative programs.

But, with 68 percent of our school programs also operating at a deficit, C766 schools keenly understand the challenges of continuing this work - while trying to balance budgets, meet payroll obligations, seek private funds to maintain operations, and provide a valuable education to students.

Now more than ever, answers to these important questions rely on a shared partnership and approach by state leaders, municipal and school officials, C766 leaders and other stakeholders to ensure that every child receives appropriate educational services.

That requires a commitment to special education funding where state and federal officials continue to prioritize full-funding of the state Special Education Circuit Breaker program and the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). These mechanisms help reimburse local school districts for the expense of providing legally mandated special education services to children with severe special needs.

Changing the state education funding formula to reflect more up-to-date special education enrollment numbers and costs would also help relieve pressures on school budgets and provide school districts more flexibility in meeting student needs.

Addressing these challenges also relies on fair funding for C766 schools and a continued commitment by our schools to continue partnering with school districts to provide the specialized education and treatment services that allow our students to learn, grow, and thrive.

But, also very significant is changing our cultural mindset from only looking at special education from a cost perspective. It’s time to embrace, accept, and place a strong value on successful special education services that truly provide students with the skills and tools needed for life and the future. This benefits all of us.

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James Major is the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of 766 Approved Private Schools (maaps), which represents 85 member schools that serve students with special needs. More information about maaps can be found at www.maaps.org.

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