New Haven Register: Connecticut falls short in how it funds special education
Katie Roy, School + State Finance Project
March 22, 2016 - 4 minutes
Every day, more than 68,700 of the students who pass through the doors of Connecticut’s public schools require special education services, making up 13 percent of the state’s total public school enrollment. The individual learning needs of these students are wide-ranging and unique.
As a result of these wide-ranging needs, the resources required to provide each of these students with a “free appropriate public education” vary significantly, and frequently pose difficult planning and financial questions to Connecticut’s public schools.
In traveling to all corners of the state, speaking about Connecticut’s school finance system and the challenges and problems it presents, no single issue has been raised or mentioned more often—by hundreds of educators, parents, community leaders, and policymakers alike—than funding for special education.
The difficulty in addressing this issue, and answering these tough planning and financial questions, stems from Connecticut’s lack of a real special education finance system. In a comprehensive 50-state survey examining state special education finance models, the Connecticut School Finance Project found Connecticut is one of only four states in the country that does not have a system for funding all special education students.
Instead of an actual system, Connecticut currently “incorporates” funding for special education students into the “foundation” amount in the state’s main education equalization aid grant—the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grant. In fiscal year (FY’) 2014, 67 percent of state special education expenditures were from ECS funding. This is particularly problematic because:
- Incorporating special education funding into the ECS formula’s foundation amount means 67 percent of state special education aid is not being distributed based on the needs of students served or the costs associated with their needs, and
- Connecticut is no longer faithfully using the ECS formula to allocate funding to local public schools.
In addition to ECS funding, districts are currently partially reimbursed for extraordinary special education costs through the state’s Excess Cost grant. In FY’ 2014, 27 percent of state special education funding was provided through the Excess Cost grant, which provides state funding when the cost for educating a special education student exceeds 4.5 times a district’s per pupil spending. However, the Excess Cost grant has a statutory cap, meaning districts do not receive full reimbursement for the expenses they submit. Instead, they receive about 73 cents for every dollar of expenses. Furthermore, district per pupil spending varies significantly in Connecticut with a range of approximately $18,000 in school year 2014-15. As a result, in FY’ 2016, the district with the lowest per pupil spending, Woodstock, is eligible for reimbursement through the Excess Cost grant at $56,000 per pupil while the district with the highest per pupil spending, Cornwall, is eligible for reimbursement at $136,539.
While no state has a perfect model for funding special education, Connecticut’s special education funding system falls far short of the six best practices we identified through our research. These best practices are:
- Differentiates funding based on student learning needs.
- Distributes state funding for special education equitably.
- Provides school districts with state funding that is consistent and makes local expenses predictable.
- Controls costs.
- Provides school districts with flexibility and encourages innovation.
- Limits local financial responsibility for students with extraordinary needs.
Not only does Connecticut not provide differentiated funding for students with disabilities or flexibility for schools and districts in service delivery, but the state’s current mechanisms do not ensure special education state aid is distributed equitably nor do they help ensure costs to schools and districts are consistent and expenses predictable.
As the Task Force to Study State Education Funding noted in January 2013, “the level of service and the costs of providing [special education] services have risen to a breaking point” and pose a significant challenge to Connecticut’s public schools. Connecticut’s public schools spent close to $1.85 billion on special education in 2014, and across the state, districts have experienced significant variance in special education costs from year-to-year. For example, since 2010 Hartford Public Schools has seen its special education spending rise more than $21 million from $85.7 million to more than $106.8 million in 2014. The suburban Windsor Public Schools district also saw special education spending rise more than $2 million from $14.8 million in 2010 to $16.9 million in 2014.
Fixing Connecticut’s school finance system cannot truly happen without addressing the needs of students with disabilities and the schools and districts that serve them. In order to ensure students with disabilities have the resources and attention they need and deserve, Connecticut must improve how state funding is distributed, and implement a system that funds all special education students.
The individual learning needs of Connecticut’s special education students are wide-ranging and unique. State funding for special education should reflect this wide variety by providing resources in a consistent, predictable, and equitable fashion that not only incentivizes the efficient and effective delivery of services but also ensures a high-quality education for Connecticut’s students with disabilities.