Almost 25 years ago a group of educators, parents and other community members spent considerable time developing a mission statement for Greenville Public Schools. The six most important words in the final document, in my opinion, are “assure all students the education necessary.” Those words continue to challenge our school staff every day.
One of the reasons I have trouble with much of what is coming out of Washington and Lansing is that I feel we have forgotten that this is really what the public schools are about — all students and the education necessary. We are spending too much energy trying to fit all students into the same mold and measure our success by how well we achieve that goal.
Some of this is driven by legitimate concerns that the world is changing quickly and we do need to be aware of how that is affecting the job market. We need to prepare students to participate in an ever changing world. But I still believe that our new world will require individuals with a variety of skills and personalities.
One place where we have clearly improved in developing individuals is in special education. There is simply no escaping the fact that there are some students who have very specific needs. The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) was enacted in 1975. Since that time the number of disabilities that individuals have that need addressing has grown significantly. In addition to the more obvious concerns such as hearing, visual and physical disabilities, other concerns such as autism, and moderate and severe cognitive impairments, to name a few, have been added to the list.
As the program has grown, much has been learned to help these students. One example is that we now know that if we begin at an earlier age to work with these students, we can actually eliminate the need for special education services later on. A program that begins for students as young as 2 ½ years old is now showing great promise. This is a great thing especially for them, but this also reduces considerable costs to families and the taxpayers later.
Not only is more being done for individuals, but we are reaching more students. The number of students being served by the special education program has grown annually from 681 in1988 to 1,867 in Montcalm County alone in 2013.
Of course, all of this comes with a cost. There is expense for trained staff, facilities, materials and equipment. The funding mechanism is complex. I will try to address this in a future column. But in the simplest terms, the federal and state governments shoulder some of the burden, but a significant amount is left to local taxpayers. It is paid for with a local millage. The amount of this millage in Montcalm County is the lowest of any of the seven counties in our area and it has not been increased since 1988.
On May 6, local taxpayers will have an opportunity to change this. At a special election, voters will be asked to increase the amount of this millage to bring our county closer to the middle of the pack. This would benefit all students, not just a few. I will discuss this in greater detail in a future column, but right now there are meetings being held to provide more details. I encourage you to attend one of them and learn more. Then plan to cast an informed vote on May 6 if you are a resident of any of the seven school districts in Montcalm County.
Janet Ralph is president of the Greenville Public Schools Board of Education.