Special-ed challenge

The cost of providing special education is eating up an ever greater share of public school funding, forcing school boards to reduce or eliminate programs for all students to pay for it. How to meet the moral and legal obligation of educating those with special needs without damaging general education defies any easy solution, as a special task force is finding out.

"I'm afraid special education costs are growing at the expense of regular education. If we do not figure out a way to control special education costs, than anything we do for (meeting the cost of overall education funding) is irrelevant," said Ben Barnes, the state budget director, during a meeting of the Education Cost-Sharing (ECS) Task Force.

The panel's task is to recommend ways to reform the ECS formula that determines the state's share in helping municipalities pay for overall education, but it recognizes that it cannot do that job without addressing the special-education issue.

About 64,000 public school students, roughly one in eight, receive special education services and those services account for nearly $1 in every $4 spent on public education in Connecticut. In the past 10 years education costs grew 40 percent, spending on special education 65 percent. Students with special needs can require one-on-one tutoring and in some cases placement in costly out-of-district programs.

While the expense of educating an average student is $14,400, the cost to provide services for special-needs students can often run to $50,000 or more, and about 300 students costs their districts more than $150,000 each, according to statistics gathered by The Connecticut Mirror.

Low-income districts, which face the greatest educational challenges, typically have the highest concentration of special education students. Current policy calls for the state to pick up the costs of special services for a student when expenses exceed 4.5 times average student costs. But because of its budget problems, the state has often not paid its full share, and to do so would mean $100 million more in state education spending. It is a price the state has to be prepared to pay.

Options under discussion include a sliding scale so that wealthy communities with a greater ability to pay would receive less state aid, poorer districts more special education assistance. That appears reasonable. More controversial is a proposal to require high-income parents to share the cost of providing for their child's special-needs education, an idea that runs head on into the long-held tradition of a free public education.

If there are ways to slow the growth in the cost of providing special education services, the state and public schools must explore them.

This is a difficult challenge, but one Connecticut cannot afford to ignore.

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