Monday, October 01, 2001

Special-ed costs far outstrip funds

Bush plan would spend more,
after conditions met

By Derrick DePledge
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        In the Winton Woods school district, administrators knew they were spending a lot more on special education than the district received from the federal government.

        Last school year, they thought they would find out just how much.

        The spending per typical student was $5,160. The spending for a special-education student was $13,380. The federal government, which has pledged to pay up to 40 percent of special-education costs nationally, contributed about $432 a student.

        The audit also found that 25 percent of Winton Woods' staff was consumed by special education while special-education students made up 15 percent of the district's 4,350-student enrollment.

        Each school day, aides, tutors, sign-language interpreters, nurses and bus drivers worked to help students with special needs blend with other students at school or, when that was impossible, learn at home.

        “We're happy to provide these services,” said John Pennycuff, the president of the district's board of education. “But there is a tremendous cost.”

        Congress, in votes over the past 25 years, has tried to improve access to public education for students with mental or physical disabilities, behavioral problems or learning difficulties. Most lawmakers, educators and advocates for the disabled believe that equal access for all students is a noble goal for the government and a basic human right that was denied for much of the nation's history.

        But federal money for special education never has matched that enthusiasm, leaving states and local school districts to pay the difference.

        The government's contribution, which has increased in the past few years and better reflects each state's school-age population, is about 15 percent nationwide. About 11 percent of public school students require special education.

        In Ohio, the federal government covers about $180 million of the estimated $1.5 billion the state spends to educate and care for about 238,000 special-education students.

        “Obviously, we would like to see more money,” said Paul Marshall, director of budget and government relations for the Ohio Department of Education.

        Lawmakers acknowledge the disparity and agree that the government should honor its commitment, but differ on the conditions.

        House and Senate negotiators are working through differences in an education-reform package that President Bush has called his top legislative priority. An amendment in the Senate version of the bill would increase special-education spending from $6 billion a year now to $21 billion a year by 2007 — achieving the 40 percent mark.

        However, the Bush administration and several lawmakers oppose spending the additional money until Congress addresses questions about special education, particularly whether some students are improperly identified as disabled.

        A study released in March from The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University found that African-American public-school students were three times more likely than white students to be identified as “mentally retarded” and assigned to special education.

        Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said lawmakers should separate special education from the education reform bill. Congress is scheduled to reauthorize the federal special education program next year.

        “We believe a lot of children end up in special education classes simply because they have reading problems,” said Mr. Boehner, who is among the main negotiators on the education bill. “Once (the schools) have the money, there would be no interest in reforming the program.”

        Until more comprehensive reform is possible, Mr. Boehner and the Bush administration would give local schools more money for early reading initiatives to identify learning disabilities among students.

        Mr. Pennycuff at Winton Woods said the existing level of federal support exposes local school districts to enormous costs.

        Along with day-to-day costs, Winton Woods, which serves students from Forest Park, Greenhills and Springfield Township, also has been asked to take extra steps to help individual students with special challenges.

        Winton Woods paid more than $60,000 a year for tuition, interpreters and transportation so a teen-ager with hearing difficulties could attend school in a nearby district.

        The district paid $37,600 a year so another teen-ager with a hearing impairment and other handicaps could have interpreters with her at all times. And the district paid $13,000 a year in tuition so a teen-ager with behavioral problems could get treatment down South.

        “If you were a parent of one of these students, you'd move heaven and earth to get the best education possible,” Mr. Pennycuff said.


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