Funding for special needs programs a complicated business

By Mike Taylor • Last Updated 11:21 am on Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Lincoln Heights Elementary School para-professional Casey Mumby works daily with students in the school’s Autism Spectrum Disorder program. Currently, there are 45 ASD students enrolled in the program. — Daily News/Mike Taylor

As most public school administrators will tell you, state and federal lawmakers are terrifyingly efficient when it comes to creating mandates for schools, yet somehow manage to disappear when it comes time to fund those mandates.

With each mandate comes a new set of criteria; rules with which each school system must comply. Schools must provide each special education student a certain number of hours each day with a social worker, a para-professional, a speech therapist.

It all costs money, but where does that money come from?

Schools have a limited number of options when it comes to funding and the model used to determine where the money goes is often skewed in favor of charter schools or those located in affluent areas.

According to Superintendent of Greenville Public Schools Peter Haines, districts like Greenville face not only a larger number of students living at or below the poverty level, but also more special education students enrolled than are typically found in charter schools.

With each school system receiving roughly the same $7,000 per pupil per year regardless of program costs, systems like Greenville’s repeatedly draw the short straw.

“Our funding is not remotely enough,” Haines said. “(Representatives) have a long history of failing to meet the financial obligations and commitments they have made.”

Past attempts to gain additional funding for special education programs have met with some resistance. A county-wide millage vote ended in failure. Though the millage received strong support within the city of Greenville, county-wide it was voted down.

Haines admits that — with the current state of the economy — now is probably not the best time to be asking voters for additional school funding.

Haines has repeatedly lobbied legislators in Lansing, asking for reforms that would more evenly distribute available funding to areas where it is most needed. For the most part his efforts, like those of so many other school administrators, have been ignored.

“It’s fair to say that when you look at all of the Greenville kids who receive special education services, spending on the average is roughly $22,000 per student per year,” Haines explained. “Of course, there are many special ed kids we are not spending that much on, which means that some students cost a lot more, as much as $50,000 per year.”

So, again, where does that money come from? The short answer is, from the general education budget; that same $7,000 per student provided by the government. With the education of some students costing up to $50,000 per year, this means less money is available for some general education kids.

Is it fair? Is it equitable? Haines says no. But it is the reality within which the school system must educate its students.

“It can be very frustrating,” Haines said. “But what we can’t do is create an environment where the situation victimizes any child, whether special ed or general ed. That’s why we don’t map our dollars back to our kids.”

Working within the existing framework is not always easy, Haines added; regardless, the school system has managed to create a special education environment that could well serve as a model for other districts.

Greenville’s Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) program in particular has, according to Haines, yielded many success stories.

Haines points to Jay Lockwood, a second-grade student in Lincoln Heights Elementary School’s ASD program and the subject of this series’ first installment, which ran in Monday’s paper. Jay was diagnosed early in his academic career with autism. Rather than being placed in a segregated, special education classroom, Jay participated in the school’s mainstreaming program.

These days, Jay functions for the most part like any other student and spends most of his school day in a classroom with regular education students. Jay’s case is not unique, Haines said.

“We always work to move children as close to regular education as we can get them,” Haines said. “While sometimes assigning a para-pro to a student one on one is a good thing, it can sometimes be a disadvantage as well, in that it keeps the student separated from their peers.

“We want these kids to have as normal an education as possible. It worked with Jay. Jay’s is a great story and there are a lot of ‘Jay’s’ here.”

Moreover, Haines added, the regular education students with whom Jay comes in contact also benefit from the relationship. They learn myriad problem solving skills and develop the ability to interact effectively with persons who may seem a little different from themselves.

“We’ve invested some money in Jay,” Haines said. “I’m proud of it. Jay’s giving back now and is giving his peers something they might not have otherwise gotten.”

Greenville Public Schools Director of Student Services Linda VanHouten echoes Haines’ comments, pointing out that many students like Jay would never reach their full potential without programs like Greenville’s.

“Our goal is always to get kids to find some way to communicate independently,” VanHouten said. “Some you might not even recognize on the street as autistic, but they may not be able to socialize in certain settings.”

Peer to peer support groups are just one of many techniques employed by Greenville teachers to help these children find themselves within the larger academic framework. There are literally hundreds of others, large and small.

And while it all costs money, and the funding model is perhaps less than ideal, few who witness the progress of Jay and his fellow ASD students could begrudge the costs.

“Our philosophy is we do whatever it takes,” VanHouten said. “We are required to make progress with the kids and it is not acceptable to us that any student should not make progress.”

Haines added that, despite the problematic funding model, the school system still does a remarkable job of educating all students, regardless of whatever special needs may exist.

“There are things about the funding that seem very unfair,” Haines said. “But at the same time, we’re blessed by a community that really values its schools.”

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