Under-funded state special education mandates are perhaps the primary reason why the cost of public school education continues to increase at a rate higher than the rate of inflation, causing property taxes to rise disproportionately to incomes in New Jersey.
According to the Garden State Coalition of Schools (GSCS, 2008), in New Jersey "mandates drive 70% of district expenses" and of these mandates, those for special education represent the fastest growing financial challenge confronting school districts. Furthermore, these under-funded state mandates have heightened the pressure on school districts to fund operating budgets by reducing programs and services for regular education in order to fund mandate-protected programs and services, primarily special education.
School districts are required by state and federal laws to provide the special education programs and services included in a student's Individual Education Plan (IEP); therefore, special education budgets cannot be cut and the under-funded portion of special education's costs must be made up from other budgetary sources.
To offset the increased costs of under-funded special education mandates, school districts are increasingly forced to significantly reduce programs for regular education students because property tax increases have been limited largely through other state legislation. Under-funded state special education mandates not only have sharply increased the competition between regular and special education programs for funding within a school's budget but also have created sharp divisions within a school's community because they pit the parents of special and regular education students against each other in the fight for funding.
In 2005, New Jersey state aid covered less than one-third of state mandated special education programs and services while the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) is funded at approximately five percent of its cost to school districts nationwide. Since January 2008, special education financial aid has been further and significantly reduced for most districts statewide based on the new state funding formula that reduces a school district's special education aid calculation to the extent that its classification rate is above the state average. In addition, wealthy districts have been losing entitlement aid for at-risk children, particularly special education as these and other categorical financial aid funds are now subjected to the formula's wealth-equalizing local share calculation.
All of this comes at a time when the costs for special education are skyrocketing. Increased costs for mandated preschool programs including intensive services for autistic students and lower special education student to teacher ratios are a major part of the problem. But more importantly there are also increasing numbers of costly out-of-district placements as well as parental lawsuits against public school districts for the purpose of obtaining private school placements for their children at the public's expense.
New Jersey has the highest proportion of special education students in out-of-district placements as well as the fourth highest classification rate for special education eligibility in the country. Many of New Jersey's school districts find that out-of-district placements can consume as much as 50% of the special education budget despite covering approximately ten percent of special education enrollment.
The students placed in out-of-district schools tend to be the most expensive because they are usually the ones most in need of special education programs and services. Depending on the student's disability, the annual cost of sending a student to an out-of-district private school can range from roughly $70,000 to over $250,000 especially for the most educationally and physically challenged students.
The legal costs arising from parental special education-based law suits are another major expense for schools. As parents have become more knowledgeable about what constitutes special education programs and services, they have increased their demands to have their children receive not only more intensive services as well as increasing their children's classification but also more placements in private schools which have resulted in more parents suing school districts for these additional benefits.
New Jersey's legal system, however, operates according to a fee shifting principle in which a school district losing in an administrative court not only must pay all of the judgment costs but also all of the plaintiff's legal costs including those for their attorneys and expert witnesses regardless of the length of the trial. Moreover, litigation for special education proceedings often takes longer than civil law suits ? increasing both legal fees and court costs. In addition, there is the cost resulting from the amount of time required of teachers, child study teams and administrators to appear in court rather than in school.
While school districts do settle a number of cases rather than run the risk of potentially more expensive outcomes, these settlements fuel the cost of providing special education. Holding New Jersey school districts harmless from such law suits would be another way in which to enable school districts to allocate more of their scarce resources to student instruction.
The State of New Jersey requires special education programs for children with educational disabilities ages three to five, particularly autistic children. While the only difference for preschool aged children is the state requirement to have a speech pathologist on the child study team, the same IEP, evaluation, eligibility, due process and "least restrictive environment" requirements apply for all special education students regardless of age. These mandated pre-school programs put an additional expense burden on local school districts as long as the mandates continue to come without the requisite funding from the state.
The special education students to teacher ratios are set by the State of New Jersey and they are, necessarily, lower than the student to teacher ratios for regular students. These staffing ratios are based primarily on the student's IEP, classification, and intensity of services required. The student to teacher ratio for a class for children with the lowest level of disabilities having one teacher has a maximum of eight while the maximum is twelve for a class with one teacher and one aid. Although ratios usually range from four to seven depending on the severity of the student's disability, class sizes exceeding six students require two aids in addition to the teacher. However, classes for children with autism and other profound cognitive disabilities are limited to a ratio of three to one.
While providing a good education for students with special needs, without the requisite state funding for these mandated levels, the higher costs of such low student to teacher ratios are often offset by higher student to teacher ratios for regular education. Because smaller class sizes have been shown to improve learning for all students, the under-funded state mandates for special education can have a deleterious effect on regular student education.
When the State of New Jersey requires its public schools to pay for an ever increasing proportion of special education costs through its under-funded mandates, the state is not only forcing property taxes to grow faster than the rate of inflation but also pressuring districts to find the missing funds by reducing the regular education budget. Such forced cuts to the regular education budget cause school districts to reduce the number of regular education teachers which results in much larger class sizes for regular education students.
Because larger class sizes have been shown to lead to lower test scores which make it more difficult for students and schools to achieve adequate yearly progress (AYP) as required by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. As a result, school districts are much more likely to be subjected to many of the NCLB's more stringent financial penalties. This will further reduce the financial resources available to support quality education.
Unless the people of New Jersey wish to have not only higher property taxes but also a downward spiral in the quality of their public education, then the State of New Jersey should pay the costs of its mandated school programs and services particularly special education. If all of New Jersey's special education mandates were fully funded the quality of the education of all of New Jersey's public school students, both regular and special, would be the greatest beneficiary.
References: Garden State Coalition of Schools (2008). Garden State Coalition of Schools Legislative FYI 5-16-08 http://www.gscschools.org May 16, 2008.