On February 14, 2018

Special education students could be better served for less, studies say

By Tiffany Danitz Pache, VTDigger

Vermont students needing special education could be better served for less money, according to two studies commissioned by the Legislature.

Lawmakers will use the studies to craft new approaches to delivering and funding special education services.

The studies were conducted by the University of Vermont and by the District Management Group, (DMG) a Massachusetts-based consultancy specializing in improving public education.

The UVM study, which focused on funding, found that while Vermont is similar to other New England states in the number of students identified as needing special educational help, Vermont spends more per special ed student than any other state in the nation.

The District Management Group study, of special education practices in Vermont, found that changes in how schools identify and meet the needs of struggling students — earlier intervention, and employing more highly skilled teachers — could improve student achievement without increasing the cost.

The two studies were commissioned to follow up on the findings of the Picus report, a 300-page examination of Vermont education and spending. Among the report’s findings was that while the state is overspending on education generally, special education expenditures are particularly high.

Nate Levenson, president of the District Management Group, said the findings of the two studies should be considered as one.

“The financial changes are only possible if you change the way you serve kids,” he said, adding it would take three to four years of high level effort to change educational practices.

University of Vermont researchers found that the state pays, on average, an additional $22,000 per special education student per year, twice what it would be paying if the state were more in line with national estimates. But the authors of the report also said what the state is paying is appropriate for what is happening in the classrooms.

Current dollars reflect current practices, said Tammy Kolbe, one of the authors of UVM’s “Study of Vermont State Funding for Special Education.” “Let me be really clear, we do not need to cut special education,” Kolbe said.

Kolbe said changing educational practices would reduce costs over time. The UVM study has estimated it would take the state five years to set a new course for special education.

“These are our most vulnerable … students,” Kolbe said in an interview with VTDigger. “If there is any indication we should reduce spending on that population we should do that very carefully to meet our legal obligations to these students.”

Paraeducator model “has not served students well”

Levenson told lawmakers at a hearing last week that special education students, who have an Individual Education Program, could get the help they need at a lower cost. “Right now, [in Vermont] the way individual education plans and the way services are currently provided it takes every dollar being spent to do that,” Levenson said.

Both studies found Vermont is failing to catch problems early enough, and that changes could be made to catch struggling students sooner, before they get to the point of needing special education.

The practice now is to send struggling students straight to special education, where they are taught by specialist educators and paraeducators. If the student presents a behavioral challenge, then the school relies even more heavily on paraprofessionals, Levenson said.

“The [paraeducator] model is expensive, and has not served your students well,” Levenson said.

Among the recommendations of Levenson’s group is for schools to focus on improving the quality of general education, especially early literacy, including hiring teachers specially trained to work with struggling students, so that special education is not the only place where they can go for help.

But one of the many problems of the current system is a lack of flexibility in how to pay for the extra help. For example, if there are four students in a class with similar reading problems, but two have been identified as requiring special education, and two have not, services for the four students cannot be combined.

So the tendency in schools is to group all struggling students under special education, because it is the only way to get funding for the extra attention needed.

UVM’s Kolbe said misidentification is not “rampant,” but it is a potential downside of the current reimbursement system.

“This report is not about slamming special education,” she said. “We were asked to evaluate what a different funding formula would look like and we were told what to look at.”

The formula Kolbe said they were asked to study was census-based. Kolbe said their finding was that such a formula “may be better aligned with Vermont’s policy priorities. But the bottom line is: there is no perfect funding formula.”

The District Management Group presented lawmakers with a number of suggestions for how to better serve special education students for less, while also improving overall student achievement, easing the workload of school staff and helping districts better manage costs.

The group studied educational practices in 10 Vermont supervisory unions, and found that nearly 40 percent of all elementary students are struggling to read, and their teachers feel “ill-equipped” to help them. The group found that classroom teachers rely too heavily on paraprofessionals, many of whom lack the teaching background and/or experience needed to be effective. Testifying to the Legislature earlier in January, Levenson said improvements to general educational instruction at the elementary school level would improve outcomes overall.

Students who are not reading at grade level by third grade have a hard time catching up, and later perform poorly in all subjects. The emphasis needs to be on helping struggling students before they need intervention at the level of special education, Levenson said.

Levenson’s group also examined how students receive special education once they need it. Too often, they found, students are taken out of their regular class for help with their specific learning problems. They end up missing out on vital instruction in core subjects. Elementary school aged students, who are frequently taken out of class for reading support, feel the effects the most. Levenson said schools should provide additional instruction time every day for struggling students.

The authors of the DMG report were critical of the wide use of paraprofessionals, and stressed the need for “highly skilled teachers,” especially for those students with the greatest needs.

The report also referred to the growing need for experts in behavioral management, as more and more students come to school suffering from trauma, and with social and emotional challenges.

The DMG report said its recommended changes should be “cost neutral or cost less than current practices.” The recommendations would require an investment in professional development and in staffing.

Karen Edwards, who directs the Agency of Education’s Integrated Support for Learning Division, said such complex changes will require careful coordination of core instruction, intervention and intensive supports for academics and behavior.

Special education block grants

The UVM study focused on a proposal for changing the funding of special needs education with the implementation of a census block grant, which would provide funding for every student in the school district, not just special education. It would allow districts more flexibility in meeting student needs by providing funding for extra help for struggling learners before they need an IEP. Students with extraordinary needs would receive additional funding.

The UVM study showed that within five years of implementing the census block grant program the state could save up to $83 million, in 2016 dollars.

But Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vt. School Boards Association, cautioned that local districts could end up having to make up the difference. School districts are required by law to provide the services called for in an IEP, she said.

The state now funds 60 percent of the cost to a local school district of providing specialized educational services to students on an IEP. Students with greater needs can cost a school district more than $50,000 a year, 90 percent of which is reimbursed by the state.

“A move to a census-based model that decreased the special education allocation without a commensurate decrease in the need for services would push special education costs into local education spending,” Mace said, adding it could mean a dramatic increase in local tax rates due to increased per pupil spending.

Kolbe said the census block grant is not necessarily the best way forward and not the only way. “There are lots of ways to fund special education, all the states have different models and none of them are perfect. They all have strengths and weaknesses. “The challenge is finding a funding system that works with Vermont’s policy priorities right now: support for early intervention and support in a general education setting to the greatest extent possible.”

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