By Michael Bielawski, Vermont Watchdog
Lawmakers seeking to control education costs in Vermont are discussing how many special education teachers is too many.
The House Education Committee on Feb. 11 invited Michael Giangreco, professor of education at the University of Vermont, to offer advice on budget and resources for special education students. Giangreco, whose expertise is in special education service delivery, said one of his primary concerns is that Vermont needs to find the right ratio of special education teachers and paraeducators, and to do so cautiously.
“There is no quick fix for special education. This is a very complex area,” Giangreco said. “We just want to be real cautious that we don’t take action that is going to harm students with and without disabilities, and I think that the Picus Report recommends some actions that could potentially be very harmful.”
The “Picus Report” is a 300-plus page study initiated as a part of the Act 46 school consolidation law passed last year. That study, led by Lawrence Picus, of Picus Odden and Associates, is helping lawmakers gauge where Vermont stands on the issue of education spending, including special education.
In Vermont, about 16 percent of students are enrolled in special education. Caring for those students costs about $300 million annually. While costs vary by district, some supervisory unions, such as Orleans Southwest in the Northeast Kingdom, spend 25 cents of every education dollar on special education. The Picus Report alleges that Vermont can save up to $164 million by establishing the right ratio of special education personnel to students.
Vermont averages about one special educator per 90 students. Depending on the district, the actual number ranges from one special educator per 50 students to one per 150 students. The Picus Report suggests changing the statewide ratio to between one special educator per 140 students and one per 200 students.
Giangreco disagreed with that recommendation.
“I raised to this same committee last year that this represents a fundamental equity issue for kids with disabilities,” he said. “This would dramatically reduce the number of special educators in Vermont schools. Just because something is a national average doesn’t mean it’s an appropriate target.”
According to Giangreco, lawmakers should focus on reducing paraeducators, who often act as special educators in Vermont. Vermont has between three and four paraeducators for every special ed teacher—well above the one-to-one ratio among schools nationally. Giangreco thinks Vermont is too reliant on paraeducators.
Whether Vermont makes good use of paraeducators often comes down to qualifications and training. During the back-and-forth questioning by the committee, state Rep. Alice Miller, D-Shaftsbury, asked if Vermont’s paraprofessionals receive appropriate training to teach special education students.
“Is there a program for them to be better prepared to come into a classroom with these kids?” she asked.
Giangreco responded that while he thinks training is always good, schools can fall into a “training trap” with paraeducators. “The training trap idea is that we give paraprofessionals a little bit of training, and then we let them loose and expect them to function like teachers,” he said.
Giangreco called the approach a waste of taxpayer money. “In some situations we are spending a lot of money, and I know that’s one of the issues you are trying to deal with,” Giangreco added. “Some of that money is just getting flushed down the toilet right now.”
Following the session, state Rep. Lawrence Cupoli, R-Rutland, echoed Giangreco’s concern about paraeducators. He said that the number of paraeducators is a concern because these teaching assistants are “not really trained particularly in special education.” “Special educators certainly should be trained and certified,” Cupoli added.
But cutting back on any special education staff could be difficult for states that want more federal funding, which correlates with having more children in special education. “Schools that have more children in special education do get more,” Cupoli said. “They do get additional education dollars.”
Cupoli said the committee would continue to look through the Picus Report for recommendations on how to curb Vermont’s education spending.