Measured Support For All Kids Count Campaign
Split reaction to All Kids Count Campaign reveals complexities of special-education funding.
School officials offered measured support for a nonprofit’s campaign to increase state funding for special-education.
Officials agree with the effort to restore state funding to reimburse towns for special education costs that can only be provided out-of-district, but expressed concern the goal of establishing an equal funding rate for public schools and private schools would further dilute already scarce funds.
“Restoring [the circuit-breaker funding] would be the right thing to do,” said Marblehead Schools Director of Student Services/Accountability Bob Bellucci. “But that would have to happen before I would say private schools, which can raise their tuition, get equal funding.”
The All Kids Count Campaign was launched January 13, by the Massachusetts Association of Accredited Private Schools (MAAPS), which advocates for the 89 schools in the Commonwealth approved under Chapter 76 to provide specialized service for students with special needs.
The campaign has two goals: to restore the special education “circuit-breaker” funding, and to equalize the state funding devoted to the state-accredited, private special-education schools and public schools.
Marblehead Schools officials support the first but not second of these goals, noting the complexity of special-education funding in Massachusetts.
A complex equation
In 1974, Congress mandated free, public education be available for all children, regardless of students’ disabilities. If special-education services couldn’t be provided in the local schools, towns would pay for services to be provided "out-of-district” in other towns or at special-accredited private schools.
For Marblehead students, most of the necessary services are provided in town. According to Bellucci, approximately 550 students in Marblehead Schools have education plans that require some type of special-education services. Of these students, only 17 obtain services out of district. This is one of the lowest percentages of students requiring out-of-district services in the North Shore, Bellucci said.
However, out-of-district services represent a large part of the Marblehead school budget. For instance, this year’s budget allocated $7.2 million for special education, including $1.3 million for the 17 students who are served out of district.
The federal government originally committed to fully fund special-education programs – both in- and out-of-district – to help towns meet the equal-education mandate. But full funding hasn’t happened for a while. This year, the federal government provided $730,000.
To overcome the resulting deficit, the state began the circuit-breaker program in 2004, reimbursing towns for out-of-district special education costs exceeding approximately $40,000.
Last year, however, Governor Patrick’s final budget cut the circuit-breaker program from reimbursing 70-75% of a town’s out-of-district special-education costs to reimbursing 40%. This was done in the middle of the school year, leaving Marblehead Schools administrators “scrambling,” according to Bellucci, and necessitating cuts to professional-development opportunities and maintenance.
“When they cut circuit breaker, it makes it extraordinarily difficult to take care of funding a federal mandate that is already unfunded,” said Marblehead Schools Superintendent Paul Dulac.
All kids count campaign
The nonprofit has been lobbying lawmakers at the state house in anticipation of the budgeting negotiations, which officially began when Gov. Patrick presented his first budget proposal. According to a press release from the State House, circuit-breaker funding was increased by $80 million to $213 million – less than the 2009 level of $230 million although, as administrators found out last year, this number could change.
But for equalizing state funding for the private, special-needs schools and for public schools, the second goal of the All Kids Count Campaign, is more controversial: Both the public and private schools compete for the same state special-education money.
MAAPS argues that the funding for the Chapter 76 private schools has been disproportionately cut in comparison with funding for public schools.
“We hate to put ourselves against the public schools, but we’ve been given no choice,” said Lauren Burm, MAAPS director of public advocacy. “Year after year, our funding gets cut.”
Marblehead Schools' Bellucci noted, however, the private schools can charge tuition for students and can also reject a child if it can’t meet his or her needs. A public school is required to pay for a resident child’s education.
“I would never want there not to be the private-school option,” Belluci said. “But if you’re in a tight enough spot where the public schools aren’t getting enough reimbursement, why should you say the private schools should get an equal amount at the same time?”
Yet the private schools cannot simply raise tuition to meet students’ needs; their tuition has to be approved by the state, which also certifies the schools. Further confusing things, Marblehead receives tuition too – although their tuition comes not from private pockets but from other towns who pay to send some special-needs students out-of-district to Marblehead. In some years, Bellucci said that some of the Marblehead Schools 29 special-education programs have no Marblehead students at all. But he said they cannot just cut programs to save costs. Students can enter the district mid-year, or the next school year may have several students requiring services.
“We needed the special-education mandates,” Bellucci said. “We also need it to be funded.”