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***Torrington, CT: Expert asks the question: WHY WILL 20% OF KIDS BE SPECIAL ED IN 10 YRS?

Aug 4, 2019, Torrington (CT) Register Citizen: Wendy Lecker: Strategy overdue for special education In 2017, the Connecticut School Finance Project, a lobby group that previously pushed a money-follows-the-child school funding scheme, was in the legislature promoting its newest untested idea. The group claimed to identify the major problem facing Connecticut school districts, unpredictability of special education costs, and presented its solution: removing special education funding from the Education Cost Sharing Formula, then having all districts pay into a new state-run “special education cost cooperative,” which would distribute the funds. Unfortunately, the group did not identify the real problem facing districts concerning special education: steadily rising costs. From 2005-2011, statewide special education rates were relatively stable at approximately 11.5 percent. In 2012-13, the rate jumped to 12.1 percent and has been increasing yearly since. In 2018-19, 15 percent of children statewide were identified as having a disability requiring an Individualized Education Plan. Simultaneously, overall public school enrollment is dropping. Estimates show that in 10 years, one in five public school students will be identified as needing special education services. This increase presents a concern beyond dollars. We should be asking, why are rates of students with disabilities rising, and how will the state ensure that districts can meet children’s needs while minimizing the toll on them and district budgets? At the legislative hearing on this proposal, Madison Superintendent Thomas Scarice and his special education director, Elizabeth Battaglia, raised these issues. Scarice testified that districts’ primary problem is rising special education costs. Both suggested proven solutions to contain costs, such as pre-k, early intervention, support for children in general education, small class size and monitoring over-identification of children of color. Scarice noted his district had been “hemorrhaging” high school students to out-placements. Madison instituted a school-based therapeutic support program — reducing out-placements, saving costs and, most importantly, meeting students’ needs. Scarice testified that this cooperative would do nothing to stem rising special education costs — it was instead a solution in search of a problem. The Connecticut Education Association also shed light on the rise in special education rates. In its statewide report on Common Core implementation in the early years, a majority of teachers reported decreased play and play-based learning, and increased behavioral incidents and anxiety in young children. The implementation of these developmentally inappropriate standards coincided with the jump in special education identification. Decreased play is a nationwide trend. One Texas district bucked the trend, tripling recess. Consequently, behavioral issues dropped and children’s focus increased. Research also shows a correlation between increased high stakes testing and increased diagnoses of ADHD. … To deal with our rising special education rates in a way that meets both our districts’ and students’ needs, Connecticut must examine education policy and finance as a whole. We need to foster a supportive school environment where some children at risk of being identified can forego the need for special education services. That task necessitates re-examining some of our misguided educational priorities over the past 20 years; those often pushed by lobbyists over the objections of parents and educators. We also must understand how to most effectively and efficiently provide special education services to students who require them. Connecticut spent two years to arrive at conclusions that educators presented in 2017. We will never ask the right questions nor get the right answers if we allow lobby groups to define our priorities rather than those who spend the most time with our children and best understand their needs. Wendy Lecker is a columnist for the Hearst Connecticut Media Group and is senior attorney at the Education Law Center.


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