THOMAS HEHIR AND STEVEN ROTHSTEIN
Hold up on cuts to special needs
By Thomas Hehir and Steven Rothstein
March 3, 2010
THE LEGISLATURE and Governor Patrick are engaged in the budget process, an arduous task even in good economic times. Education has always been a primary function of state government, and the governor recognizes this with a proposed 5 percent increase in the general education fund.
But for students with complex needs, the proposed budget cuts services almost in half, possibly denying them the quality education to maximize their chance to take part fully in society. The budget would shrink reimbursements to school districts that send students with complex educational needs to specialized private schools. Out of $230 million in this fund called the “circuit breaker,’’ the fiscal year 2010 budget cuts $90 million, or 39 percent. The governor’s 2011 budget cuts another $5 million, or a total of 41 percent. Not only are cuts of such magnitude unequal, they penalize children who have some of the most pressing educational needs.
Most children in Massachusetts should be fully educated in neighborhood schools, but cutting circuit breaker funds puts tremendous pressure on communities unable to accommodate them. It is unreasonable to expect every district to have a full array of special services for every student who is blind, deaf, deafblind, physically disabled, has medical problems, or cognitive disabilities.
On the other hand, limiting services to children with complex needs unfairly deprives them of adequate preparation for adulthood. Private specialized schools complement public schools by serving those who need intensive training from highly skilled professionals. They offer different services, but are united in the overarching goal of communities to educate their children. That is why the state created the circuit breaker in the first place.
With special services at their public school, most children with disabilities thrive in the mainstream. A few with severe or multiple disabilities find it impossible to fit in. Some public schools may not be able to fund specialized teachers, adaptive technology and other special accommodations. Students may be isolated, marginalized. In such circumstances, the district recommends a specialized school setting in which these students can participate fully in academics and social activities, where their own abilities - not traits beyond their control - drive learning.
Specialized schools have unique expertise, making them incubators of innovation. They positively impact the entire system through an array of cutting-edge student programs and teacher training that, in turn, strengthen their community-based services. Without such centers of innovation and training, 6,000 children with complex medical, learning, and sensory needs across Massachusetts would be undereducated. Thousands more in mainstream classrooms would miss out on the optimal education they could receive from outreach programs, or from teachers who are trained through these schools.
There are economic, social and academic arguments for funding the circuit breaker that pays for specialized school tuitions. There is an inescapable moral imperative, too. If it is true that the worth of any society is measured by how well it treats its citizens that need assistance to fully engage in life’s opportunities, then the Commonwealth will be judged by how well it educates and cares for the most vulnerable children. Children who are blind, deaf, physically disabled, cognitively impaired, or emotionally ill need to have the full spectrum of educational options.
As citizens we must all speak for these students. We want to ensure they are taught all that they can learn, and give them an equal chance to become productive members of society. Providing the best education possible for every child is not a choice, it is our obligation to the future.
Thomas Hehir is professor of practice at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, a member of the Perkins School for the Blind Board of Trustees, and former director of the US Department of Education’s Office of Special Education. Steven Rothstein is president of Perkins School for the Blind.