Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Real Cost of Budget Cuts 2: Special Education

As with last week’s piece on poverty in our county, this post is intended to explain the ramifications of past budget cuts and any new cuts to the county education budget. After 7 years of underfunding, the stakes are higher than ever, and student needs are greater than ever.

This week, my focus is on perhaps our most challenging, expensive, and litigious unfunded mandate in education: special education (and if you know anything about our unfunded mandates, you know that’s saying something). Our special education issues are serious in our school system, and the people who want to cut the county education budget need to understand that.

Topic B: Special Education

To help you in reading this material, I have divided the piece into 3 sections:
  1. If you don’t know the particulars of special education and how it works financially or practically, start with Part 1: The Process.
  2. If you know the basics of special education and want to know how budget cuts have negatively affected it in Cecil County, start with Part 2: The Problem.
  3. If you really just want to see me politely (mostly) use my Teacher Voice with local government decision-makers, start with Part 3: The Politics of It All.

Part 1: The Process
People who are not in education or who have never had a child who receives special education services typically do not know the process behind that label, a process with legal and financial ramifications. Here’s a summary of how it works.
  • Special education services are available to students with documented disabilities in public schools from age 3 until age 18 or 22 (depending on student needs).
  • To qualify for services, students are referred (usually by a teacher, parent, or guidance counselor) for an evaluation.  If that evaluation shows that the student has a disability in one or more of the areas covered by special education and that disability affects the student in the regular classroom, then he or she can receive special education services.
  • Once the designation occurs, a team is formed involving the student, parents, teachers, counselors, and appropriate specialists to create the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP is a legal document that spells out the student’s special education goals and the services that the student receives to be successful in the classroom and to achieve those goals.
  •  The IEP team, by law, meets regularly to discuss any changes that may be necessary to the plan and to review student progress on the goals.
  •  Students can be “dismissed” from special education services if the team decides that the student no longer requires intervention, but most students with IEPs receive those services for years before dismissal is on the table (if ever). Dismissal is thus most common at the high school level.
  •  IEPs also involve planning for the student’s transition to adult life outside of school and designating any services necessary for that transition.
  • Another way that a student can receive services for a disability is via the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Students can qualify for a “504 plan” that lists the accommodations that the student receives under the law. The school’s process for a 504 plan varies somewhat from that of an IEP process (and a 504 plan carries some additional legal force across various aspects of a person’s life), but the intent is the same: providing students with what they need to be successful in school.
(For the sake of this post, when I refer to “special education students” or “students receiving services,” I am referring to all students whose education is in some way “specialized” under the law because our legal and moral obligations to all of these students—and the necessity of budgeting for them—are the same.)

Before the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 formalized public schools’ responsibility to educate every child, children with disabilities (if allowed to enroll in their neighborhood public schools at all) were typically segregated from the regular population. (See my post from last year on that topic.) Over the years, we have moved from that “self-contained” model to an “inclusion” model. (See this link to understand the differences between "mainstreaming" and "inclusion"; to learn more about inclusion, read this article by our former school superintendent and current associate superintendent for education services.)

Today’s special education services involve a blend of self-containment and inclusion because the law specifies the target model as each student’s “least restrictive environment,” the environment most suited to that student’s needs. Thus, many students are fully included in regular education classes all day long, whereas other students may be fully included for most subjects but receive pull-out instruction in specific subject areas or for specific IEP goals. A small number of our students with the most severe disabilities are in self-contained classrooms for most of the day, but they engage in some school- and community-based activities designed to provide contact with non-disabled peers. In rare cases, if the schools cannot provide the level of support that a student with the most severe disabilities needs, then that student can be placed in a private facility (at the public school system’s expense). Regardless of setting, note the emphasis here: individualized instruction required by law based on individual student needs.

Part 2: The Problem
Needless to say, providing the type of individualization specified by special education law is extremely expensive, especially in a growing special education population such as ours. The federal government originally intended to provide 40% of the funding for special education students, but federal allocations have always come up short (typically, they fund around 9% of special education expenses, as shown on page 13) Because special education students require nearly twice the per-student money to educate than their non-disabled peers do, this discrepancy places a huge financial burden on state and local education budgets.

Cecil Countians who have been observing our new education-cutting governor may detect a problem here. He is attempting to slice our state education dollars, yet we have no choice (no choice at all—these are legal mandates) in these special education per-student expenditures. His state cuts mean that our local government will then have to pick up any part of the legally mandated bill that he does not pay. We cannot just "cut" or "reduce" special education services because citizens don't feel like paying for them or because they do not support the idea of them. The special education costs remain under the law and must be paid regardless of the political mood in which we find ourselves. Someone has to pay the cost of those services. You get that, right?  

A serious problem with cutting the school budget as a whole is that we cannot scale back services to special education students, and those students are a growing segment of our population. Schools have to fund our programs no matter how these budget debates play out, and we don’t get to come back asking the county for more money at fiscal year’s end if we don’t get the estimates right the first time (as some other county entities do). Paying the bill for special education services is not a choice. It’s the law. (And it's not the only unfunded mandate that we must finance--I'm using it as an important example of how the law dictates much of our budgeting.) Our local funds are critical especially since the federal government (and our new governor) refuse to pay their fair share. Angry Ones, when you vote for a governor who wants to cut the state school budget, and you lobby your local government to cut the school budget, too, who do you think is going to pay these legally mandated expenses for a growing population? Exactly how is that supposed to work? 

In Cecil County, the number of our students receiving services under the law has been on the rise for years. Right now, 2,599 of our 15,681 students have IEPs (2,276 students) or 504 plans (323 students) (source: Cecil County Public Schools). That number is more than the total number of students in our two largest high schools combined. In one school, students receiving services constitute 18.44% of that school's overall population. Instructionally speaking, these numbers are daunting, and providing appropriate accommodations for all of these students (not to mention all of the other students in a building) costs money. 
Some of their accommodations have no financial cost, for example
v  repeating directions to students,
v  seating students near the teacher,
v  asking students to repeat directions back to the teacher to ensure understanding, and
v  having a special exit plan for fire drills.

Some of their accommodations are very expensive, for example
v  medical equipment for the schools for our most physically fragile students,
v  transportation services for students with severe physical challenges,
v  electronic devices (which can vary from around $500 for iPads that aid in reading, writing, and other tasks to $15,000 for devices for students with the most severe communication limitations) that provide us with an incredible (and increasing) variety of ways to provide accommodations for students but are often viewed by the public as frivolous luxury items, and
v  the number of special education teachers we need to cover the case management of all of these students (each IEP requires a case manager who serves as the student advocate, goal monitor, parent liaison, and overall trouble-shooter, in addition to his or her classroom responsibilities).

Some of their accommodations carry hidden expenses, for example
v  the cumulative cost of paper for each student who needs a copy of the notes from the board because he or she cannot physically write them down (this seems small, but this accommodation is more common than you think),
v  the number of teachers needed to cover special education testing accommodations, which typically involve required small-group settings and thus more adults, and
v  giving students more time on assignments, which often involves a teacher to monitor the student beyond the time parameters of the classroom and a physical location in which the student can do the work (often one of our academic assistance options during or after school).

When these accommodations are not met (something that these escalating cuts have made more and more possible moving forward), the legal expenses to defend the school system in court for failing to implement the IEP would, of course, be astronomical. “Our county executive and county council won’t fund us and these accommodations again” is not going to hold up in court as a defense because that poor excuse (like so many prior county budget shenanigans) is indefensible. Because our school system operates on the foundation of valuing all learners, the thought of not meeting IEPs is not only legally distressing to schools; it is ethically terrifying. We need to serve students in the way they deserve to be served.

Special education services are sometimes controversial. For one thing, having many students' disabling conditions in play and so many ways to accommodate them can easily overwhelm a classroom and its teacher. In addition, because special education funding in schools is a legal priority, other school personnel often view the special education budget as running over with money that can be tapped for other needs, and that perception creates a great deal of tension among departments and misperceptions about how money is spent. 

Furthermore, on a day-to-day level, teachers themselves do not always agree on what a particular student’s “least restrictive environment” is. I have been in extremely contentious IEP meetings where the student, the teachers, the counselors—everyone—disagreed on what to do to help the student. Determining individual needs is incredibly difficult, and then determining how to service those needs is even more so. As a result, this work is complicated, time-consuming, and expensive. Regardless of how tough these issues are, special education is a legal and ethical responsibility for schools, and thus we cannot just "trim the budget" where special education is concerned. 

Across our county, we have regular education classrooms with more special education students in them than ever. Typically, we strive for the most ethically sound distribution supported by special education guidelines, "natural proportions" (the number of students with IEPs in a classroom in proportion to the number of people with special needs in the population; for more information, read here starting on page 7). We allocate special educators to support regular education teachers in those classrooms based on the percentage of students in the room with IEPs and how complex their needs are. We just don’t have enough regular education teachers, special educators, or classrooms to manage this load. Our county decision-makers forced schools to cut 180 positions, remember? 

Across the system, those numbers in some classrooms are so far beyond natural proportions as to be mind-blowing. Our school leadership says that another 15-19 special education teachers are needed to have any sort of peace of mind about our special education situation (not to make the situation ideal--just to have peace of mind about it). Needless to say, with the county government's budget attitude, additional positions are nowhere on the horizononly even deeper cuts are on their minds. 

Debates over how to handle the lack of staffing (just another reminder—schools have cut 180 positions over the last several years while the county government added 30 positions) have led to internal disagreements in schools over how to manage every facet of special education services. We are all exasperated because we want to give all students what they need, and county budget cuts have made that a daily ritual of figuratively bashing our heads into walls. These conflicts are the result of people trying to do the right thing and (in the absence of the necessary resources to do the right thing fully) doing what they have to do in order to meet at least the basics of the law. In trying to meet those basics, we are increasingly doing so at the expense of the care and attention that regular education students also deserve. I would absolutely recommend that parents enroll their children (with or without disabilities) in our public schools. I am proud of the work we do here. But I don't kid myself about the direction we're heading in if no one stops the budget-cutting insanity. Tensions are high; resources are low; students are at risk.

Part 3: The Politics of It All
Groups of concerned parents (some of them with children who receive services) have advocated for the proposed school budget with local officials. At the most recent session, the county executive’s response to their concerns was telling them that funding the school budget would involve “an 11% tax increase—is that acceptable to you?” (listen to the county audiotape of that session around the 47:50 minute mark). She is asking the wrong question. Let’s say she’s right about needing to increase taxes by 11% to fund schools. Let’s say that past maneuvering with the fund balance was not the shell game that it appears to be. Let’s say that she’s right that the county government has done a “really, really good job” in cutting expenses. Let’s say that’s all true (although past actions have not given citizens much reason to have confidence in those claims). Even if all that is true, to corner those parents on the issue of revenue is wrong on a fundamental level because it deflects attention from who created our current situation.

You see, these parents were spurred to action by the snowballing effect of 7 years of budget cuts on their children’s lives. The lack of resources in our public schools right now is the direct result of the actions of the county executive and the county council in cutting the education budget. Her comment is a deflection. If the parents had said, “Yes, if a tax hike is what’s needed to pay the bill, then that’s what’s needed,” then she can (with the full support of the Angry Ones) dismiss their concerns with “Well, I can never get behind that tax increase” even if paying the bill she has previously refused to pay in full is the reason that additional revenue is now needed. The needs exist regardless of whether county leaders decide to fund them. The needs exist, the bill is due, and the bill is worse because of county government budget practices. Act like the fiscal conservatives you say you are: pay the bills. Instead of turning the tables on concerned parents, the question I wish she would have asked is, "How can we fix what we have done here for the past seven years?" If that involves taxes, then it involves taxes. If it involves more clarity with the fund balance, then it involves the fund balance. Whatever it involves, accept responsibility for it, and do it. 

Let’s compare this situation to personal finances instead of public ones. Let’s say you own a car. You don’t want to spend the money on standard maintenance as you go (oil changes, tire rotation, tune-ups, and such) because you want to go to the Bon Jovi concert, or you decide to have a baby, and hey—the car looks like it’s running fine. But after a couple of years, the car needs repair all the time. No oil changes means replacing valves two years too soon. No tire rotation means buying new tires three years too soon. No tune-ups means your car isn’t starting on these cold days. You need to fix it, and you need to spend even more money now to fix it than what you would have been spending all along if you had kept up with regular maintenance. We would all call such a car owner irresponsible and short-sighted (and we would have little patience for the car owner bemoaning his mounting car bills). Those two terms characterize our county budget decision-making up until now: irresponsible and short-sighted.

At that same recent citizen forum, one of the county council members responded to a parent with concerns about one of our most dire school buildings by not accepting the council's role in the funding of that problem and saying that the parent should go to the school system and “jump’ up and down”  (around the 41-minute mark) about having its facilities issues fixed. I am trying to be patient with you, county council, but the reason that parent was there in your presence in the first place is to "jump up and down" because YOU ARE THE PROBLEM. (Am I shouting? Sorry.)   

Respectfully, county executive and county council, we have cut so much from schools now (for seven budget cycles) that every cut you make to our overall budget is a cut to all of these services—every single one, including services for students in poverty, including special education, including building maintenance. Until you end this, no amount of public deflection excuses your culpability. The schools (and parents and even students) have been coming to you “jumpin’ up and down” to get you to understand that you are responsible to make funding happen. This situation is not pretty, and to do the right thing, you are going to upset voters who think that they do not bear the cost of their public services. Your loyalty does not belong to them. Your loyalty belongs to doing the right thing for Cecil County.

Forty years ago, the federal government took on special education because of the inconsistent and sometimes reprehensible treatment of students with disabilities in American schools. Implementing special education services is time-consuming, expensive, overwhelming, and often unpopular. It is a school's job because it is the right thing to do, and it is the law. For public officials, funding public education is also time consuming, expensive, overwhelming, and often unpopular. It is also the right thing to do, and it is the law. Our county government has been playing a dangerous game with students' lives with this money for too long. It's time to stop. Fully fund the education budget.  

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