The State’s Extortion of Special Education

Brookline Tab, February 2000

Why are towns like Brookline struggling so much to fund special education?

This is an important question, in light of the projected school budget crunches this year. The issue of SPED expenditure was tackled at the EDCO collaborative’s legislative forum, held in Lexington on January 28. The EDCO collaborative — an association of school representatives from the suburban towns surrounding Boston such as Wellesley, Newton, Watertown, and Brookline — is pushing the state legislature to do something to relieve the high cost of SPED for their towns. Ever since Education Reform was passed in 1993, state funding of education has increased for the poorer communities and cities, while funds have dropped considerably for the EDCO communities, Brookline included. Given the decrease in state money to EDCO towns, the growth in special education and overall enrollment, and the constraints of Proposition 2 ½, it is now nearly impossible for even the wealthier towns to sustain quality education for all.

Why are SPED costs so high? House Speaker Thomas Finneran and the Massachusetts Department of Education insist it is because the SPED standard, Chapter 766, which requires that special needs children be educated to their “maximum feasible benefit,” is too generous. They would rather adopt the federal standard or a “free and appropriate education” which is weaker. They want to narrow eligibility for special services, and only then will they improve the funding scheme for towns. It is akin to extortion, where the struggling towns are brought to their knees for want of money, and they are asked to sacrifice special education students to get it. Interesting how the State House talk is all about the need for high standards in education — except when it comes to the neediest students of all, and when it comes to paying for those standards. Instead of looking to themselves to explain the paucity in education funding, our leaders would rather vilify people for requiring services, while the Governor vows to cut more taxes.

The State House’s view of SPED implies abuse of the system, when in fact, the growing number of needy children is due to the very real phenomenon of medical advances. According to EDCO speaker David Urion, Director of The Learning Disabilities and Behavioral Neurology Program at Children’s Hospital, many more premature births survive than ten years ago, about 50,000 a year, and 85% of those come into the school systems with medical issues. These are children with sensory disorders, mental deficits, muscular impairments, all of whom will require a lot of help, some very expensive.

Do we then tighten eligibility for the milder disabilities? Maybe there are a handful of cases where services could be eliminated. But that won’t save much money. Take these services away and you not only affect these students’ progress; you add stress to their lives as well. As Urion put it, “However you define [the disability], it’s still there in the schools.” You still have to deal with the issues in the classroom; and so regular ed teachers would have to be retrained, and that will cost money.

Like Education Reform, the Massachusetts SPED standard sought to even things between the haves and the have- nots. Yet, as with Ed Reform, the haves should not be forgotten. The answer is that we need more money for education in general, not to lower standards for anyone. Our current standard attempts to fully prepare the disabled for a productive life, which did not happen prior to its existence. Yet, the word from the State House is: “Lower the special ed standard, and the money for the towns will come.”

It is no less than blackmail. We should not give in on the standard; instead, we should attack the miserly way the state funds education. The SPED laws were hard-won and are still necessary. But expenditures are on the rise. The real answer is, we need more money for education, all education.