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Massachusetts: 20% of students have special needs; "level of need...increased"

July 16, 2023, Fitchburg (MA) Sentinel and Enterprise: Mass. House answering call for special education funding

BOSTON — Soaring costs for special education are stretching school districts’ budgets thin, and the House appears primed to steer money to some communities to help soften the blow.

House Democrats on Wednesday began moving a $693 million spending bill that includes a $75 million reserve account districts could tap to manage the increase in special education tuition costs after pandemic-era federal grants expired.

Districts are facing effectively a 14% increase in the tuition they pay to private special education providers, who take students who can benefit from more individualized education.

Inflation has also raised the costs of transporting students to these providers — which municipalities are required to cover, and can sometimes be over an hour away.

The issue has been gaining more attention on Beacon Hill.

“We want to fund special education. I don’t think that’s in question here. Our communities want to fund special education. The question is, what are they going to cut?” said Sen. Jo Comerford, who has filed a bill to create a commission to study solutions.

The number of Massachusetts students who need special education services has increased 4.2% in the last 20 years, and the level of need for each of these students has also increased, Mary Bourque, co-executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents (MASS), told the Joint Committee on Education at a hearing on bills related to special education on Tuesday.
One out of every five public school students in Massachusetts requires special education services, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Bourque said that at a recent roundtable hosted by MASS, about 40 school districts estimated that on average 27% of their total operating budget is now going toward special education. This is a 10% increase from 2019 pre-pandemic costs, she said.

“As the budget choices become more difficult, we could be setting up our districts for great tension and resentment of special education students and families. And we don’t want to do that,” Bourque said.

Several bills before the committee seek to address the rising costs for districts, by pushing more of the financial burden onto the state.

For students attending private special education programs approved by DESE, districts are eligible to be reimbursed for the tuition at an approved rate set by the Operational Services Division. This reimbursement was expanded in the 2019 Student Opportunity Act, but lawmakers and advocates argued on Tuesday that it still isn’t enough.

Under the reimbursement model, the state pays 75% of the costs above a threshold set every fiscal year for tuition.

“As an example, in FY23, the per-student threshold was $49,494. If special education services provided to a student cost a district $75,000, reimbursement for that student would be the cost of $75,000 minus the threshold of $49,494 times 0.75, or $19,129.50,” DESE’s website says.

A Sen. Jacob Oliveira and Rep. Michael Kushmerek bill (S 337 / H 527) seeks to decrease this cost threshold by about $12,000 per student, to $37,120.

This would provide each district with about $9,000 more per student, at a cost of about $80 to $100 million to the state, Bourque told the committee on Tuesday. MASS supports the bill, as well as several others that would cost the state but save money for districts. These include two other Oliveira and Kushmerek bills that would increase the rate at which the state reimburses districts from 75% up to 90% (S 335 / H 525) and the state’s reimbursement rate for special education transportation costs, also from 75% up to 90% (S 336 / H 526).

Bourque said MASS estimates that these two bills together would cost the state another $80 million.

The federal government requires districts to educate students with disabilities or financially cover their education, but the feds only pick up part of the tab.

In the U.S. fiscal 2024 budget, federal investments made up 12.7% of excess costs for special education, despite a federal law that authorizes the U.S. government to pay up to 40% of special ed-related costs, according to the Committee for Education Funding’s fiscal 2024 budget analysis.

Two bills propose commissions to study long-term solutions to the funding challenges, filed by Oliveira and Kushmerek (S 332 / H 571) and Comerford and Rep. Daniel Carey (S 241 / H 442). These commissions would focus on looking at the professional development pipeline into teaching special education, expanding the number of private education facilities available and incentivizing competition among transportation providers to drive prices down.

“We lack the staffing flexibility of larger districts to provide specialized programming needs for individual grade levels,” said Brian Forgue, a member of the rural Gateway Regional District school committee. “For example, in one of our small elementary schools, we only have one special education professional to handle every student with special needs from grades K through 5. We have fewer service providers like speech professionals, and even when we do have the opportunity to provide funding for those positions, Gateway often finds itself at a disadvantage in acquiring those specialists when we’re facing competition from better funded, suburban and urban schools.”

Paying for a student to attend an out-of-district private school can cost Gateway anywhere from $80,000 to $300,000, Forgue said.

“Every dollar that we can’t fund from the state for special education services is then borne by the local municipality,” Comerford said. “So we really are setting our smallest … and poorest communities at odds with each other trying to actually serve the very kids who need our service the most.”


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