Report: CT’s funding, delivery of special education ‘insufficient, ineffective and inequitable’

Back • Publication Date: December 1, 2021 • Education & Employment, Fiscal & Economics

A recent report concluded Connecticut’s approach to special education is inadequate, and students are suffering as a result.

Connecticut Voices for Children, a think tank and advocacy group, found the state’s current methods of funding and delivering special education services are “insufficient, ineffective and inequitable,” wrote Daniel Curtis, a research and policy associate — and that those problems were only exacerbated by the pandemic.

And as districts struggle to meet rising costs, researchers pointed to performance data as suggesting the quality of special education is declining. State assessments showed the achievement gap between students with disabilities and those without was already widening before school closures, they reported, especially in districts where many families experience poverty.

“We’ve seen a decline in the performance of special education students, which suggests our funding doesn’t provide an appropriate education,” said Lauren Ruth, the research and policy director of Connecticut Voices.

In the report, titled “Reimagining Connecticut’s Special Education Systems for a Post-Pandemic Future,” researchers found the state’s largest contributions to special education services have fallen short of increasing student need.

“Digging into the research, we’re finding that the growing costs is due largely to the changing demographics of Connecticut students,” said Ruth.

While Connecticut’s student enrollment declined more than eight percent from 2007 to 2019, its students with disabilities increased by 23 percent over that time, according to report. Special education is also more expensive to fund than general education.

Districts, meanwhile, are financially responsible for educating students with disabilities, even if they cannot in their own schools. That means public schools pay tuition to out-of-district special education programs, which researchers said were “the primary contributor” to growing costs in recent years.

Between 2010 and 2019, out-placements increased 53 percent from 3,474 students to 5,325 students in the state, they found. And 40 percent of out-placed students in Connecticut attend private programs, which are more costly than public schools.

But funding from the state’s Education Cost Sharing grant, which is allocated based on enrollment and not weighted for students with disabilities, has decreased in recent years — leaving districts to foot more of the bill as special education costs rise. Over a decade, statewide special education costs had grown 21 percent by 2016, the researchers found. The average share of the state contribution had decreased by three percent, while the local contribution increased by six percent.

“There’s also a strain placed on under-resourced districts,” said Ruth, such as low-income city districts, where also a greater proportion of students of color attend schools. Many of those school systems have struggled to hire special education teachers and staff, and deliver adequate services before the pandemic and during school closures.

The share of district special education costs covered by the state’s second largest funding stream for special education has also decreased over the last decade. The Excess Cost Grant reimburses districts for the costs of educating students with disabilities who need expensive accommodations or have no home district. But those funds are capped, and the grant has stagnated while claims have grown.

Researchers also found those funds have been distributed inequitably. Over a three-year period, affluent suburban towns in Fairfield County received on average eight times more per pupil funding from that grant than low-income city school districts like Bridgeport.

“Parents will do anything they can to make sure their child gets the education they need,” said Ruth. “When you have a wealthy parent who can afford lawyers, doing everything you can may include bringing in a lawyer.”

Other families might not have the time or resources to do that, she said.

The report cited examples of districts that could not handle the crunch: the superintendent of Torrington Public Schools said special education costs drove a $2.5 million budget deficit in 2019. Greenwich Public Schools were almost $1 million over their budget for students with disabilities in 2018, and planned to divert funds from general education to close the gap.

The pandemic may have exacerbated these concerns, Connecticut Voices reported, citing additional expenses related to missed classroom time. Students with disabilities were more likely than their peers to opt for remote learning, and interventions often do not lend themselves to a distance model. Remediation costs could be up, the report said, and so could referrals to special education evaluations.

“The pandemic has been extraordinarily traumatic for students,” said Ruth. “We’re seeing across districts in Connecticut as students return to in-person learning all sorts of behaviors we didn’t see before, resulting from these disruptions in child development.”

“We had kids who had higher needs that were not being met, and now they’re coming back to school with even higher needs,” she said.

Researchers noted federal aid is on its way: Connecticut received $32 million from the American Rescue Plan specifically for special education. However, the report estimated remediation for these students could cost an additional $1.7 billion over the next five years.

“And that doesn’t even account for additional students entering special education,” said Ruth. “That’s making up for learning loss.”

Connecticut Voices also proposed policy recommendations such as changes to two main sources of special education funding that would make state contributions more equitable — including updating funding formulas to better account for students with disabilities. The think tank also encouraged Connecticut to make use of regional resources, so that student needs are addressed early, teacher and staff skills and knowledge can be shared, and more programs are integrated into less restrictive settings.

“By implementing these systems now, Connecticut could make long-lasting progress towards a more effective and equitable education system,” wrote Curtis.

Authors: Cayla Bamberger •  Source: CT Post • View