Vermont is in the early stages of adopting a new approach to funding special education services for children with disabilities. For nearly two decades, districts have been provided relatively generous reimbursements for providing special education services and granted more dollars for providing more services. Moving forward, they will be allocated a set amount of funding based on an analysis of historical averages but extended greater flexibility and decreased paperwork pertaining to how dollars are spent.
As a parent, taxpayer and elected school board member from Vermont, I recognize that change is long overdue. Vermont’s special education system is expensive — on average, schools spend nearly $22,000 extra on every student with a disability, which is estimated to be 1 1/2 to 2 times more than the national average — and yet the outcomes are abysmal. For instance, on the 2015 administration of the National Assessment of Educational Performance, only 24 percent of students with disabilities in eighth grade scored basic or above in mathematics, and 44 percent reached that level in reading. In contrast, overall, 79 percent and 83 percent of Vermont eighth-graders scored basic or above in mathematics and reading, respectively. This gap is discouraging because the vast majority of students receiving special education services can be expected to perform on par with peers when provided appropriate accommodations and modifications. Sadly, according to the U.S. Department of Education, Vermont is actually one of the better performers when it comes to compliance and outcomes.
Consequently, I wholeheartedly support Vermont’s plan to shift from a weighted (districts get more state funds to educate students in more restrictive settings) to a census-based (districts receive a block amount of special education dollars based on historical trends and allocate as needed) approach to distributing funding for children with disabilities. However, I am concerned that the focus on improving outcomes so strongly advocated by the University of Vermont and the District Management Group will be lost in the race to reduce costs.
Serving students in more restrictive settings — for instance, specialized programs or private schools — is expensive and frequently distances children from the teachers best qualified to teach them. However, educating complex learners in inclusive settings is also expensive, as schools need to allocate significant resources to training general education teachers, modifying the curriculum and providing appropriate related services — such as speech and occupational therapy — that are essential to closing the achievement gap. These costs can be particularly high in small rural districts that may need to develop specialized expertise for a very small number of students.
A recent perspective piece from District Management Group chief executive Nate Levenson rightly concludes that “meeting the needs of students with disabilities requires a forward-thinking approach grounded in an expectation that even students with the most significant needs are capable and ready to learn with the right support.”
Levenson points to Vermont’s efforts to reform special education funding as a model other states should consider emulating. However, only time will tell whether the state is able in practice to effectively reallocate funds to improve outcomes while simultaneously reducing costs. This is a high bar, especially in rural schools that are continuously adjusting their budgets due to declining enrollment. While it is eminently reasonable to change delivery to improve outcomes, magical thinking related to significant cost savings could set Vermont, and other states watching it, up for disappointment.
Our leading focus must be quality. We must reallocate resources to foster inclusion and access to the general education curriculum along with exceptional general education teachers, not segregation of students with disabilities. Based on his success in districts in Massachusetts, Levenson has provided Vermont with a sound blueprint for change that prioritizes engaging qualified general education teachers, delivering high quality instruction to all students, providing robust academic and behavioral supports and interventions, and decreasing reliance on paraprofessionals to teach our most complex learners.
As a Vermonter, I would be proud to see my state emerge as a leader balancing quality and cost containment — and provide a model for the rest of the country to follow. Every student has a right to a quality education, and children with disabilities and their families can’t afford for us to get this wrong.
Lauren Morando Rhim is the executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.