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Gist Says State Working to Lower Special Education Costs

Thursday, February 07, 2013


The cost for special education services in Rhode Island has been debated for years and have forced many school districts to ask for state assistance.

When State Representative Dennis Canario introduced a bill last week that called for a cap on the percentage by which private educational service providers such as the Groden Center and Bradley Hospital could seek an annual increase in payments from school departments, he said that students with disabilities and special needs “should never be the victims of budget problems in a community.”

But according to Rhode Island Department of Education Commission Debra Gist, the state is already addressing the issue of rising costs in special education and the initiatives it has proposed in recent years have not only served the needs of the students in question but brought costs down in the process.

A Positive Trend

In an interview with GoLocalProv this week, Gist said that both “the total cost” and the “number of students” who need special education services in Rhode Island have been gradually declining.

Citing information from RIDE’s Finance Department, Gist said that in the 2011 Fiscal Year, school districts spent $477.7 million dollars to provide such services for approximately 25,504 students.

That is a decrease of over $22 million dollars from the 2010 amount ($490,218,497 ) and represents a difference of over 300 children. And while that amount is only $4 million lower than the 2009 fiscal year totals ($481,775,957), it is nearly a drop of 2,000 kids from that year’s total number of 27,344 students provided for.

“As educators, we have a responsibility and a legal obligation to provide all students, including students with disabilities, with the resources and support they need to succeed,” Gist said. “To do so, all of our schools are involved in a process known as Response to Intervention (RTI), which seeks to identify students at risk at an early age and to provide them with services that can help them before learning problems become deep-set.”

Gist says RTIs have helped to reduce the number of students identified as “students with disabilities” and that, when it is determined that a student needs special education services, school officials and families work together to develop an Individualized Education Program that specifies the services that the student will receive.

“One of our goals is to provide these services in the ‘least-restrictive environment,’ meaning a blended classroom in a neighborhood school would be preferable to out-placement in a special-education program,” she said. “This process also keeps costs down and provides better services. Sometimes, however, students do need services that the district cannot provide, so the student may get placed in an out-of-district program, which can be expensive to the district.”

An Investment of Resources

Rhode Island Department of Education Commissioner Debra Gist says the state is doing what it can to keep special education costs down.

Gist cautions that the numbers listed above are the total figures for the state to educate students with disabilities, not just for students who are placed in out-of-district programs and that, because of this, there “would be a very wide range of per-pupil costs.”

“The funding for high-cost special-education needs helps districts pay for those students at the upper end of the range of costs,” she said.

Gist also pointed out that, thanks to the state’s Funding Formula for education aid, which is now in its second year, Rhode Island has created a fund specifically meant to help districts with high-cost special-education needs.

“The fund this year contains $500,000, and Governor Chafee has proposed a $500,000 increase for next year,” she said.

Part of RIDE’s goal in regard to special education, Gist said, is for the department to “invest (its) resources wisely.”

“We have helped school districts save millions of dollars through several recent statewide efficiencies, including statewide inter-district transportation, statewide contracts for purchase of supplies, and new school-construction regulations,” she said. “When districts save money on these services, they can redirect the funds toward instruction, including instruction for students with disabilities.”

A Private Nightmare

Canario’s bill specifically targets private education providers because, he said last week, those organizations are increasing costs at unsustainable levels that are higher than the rates by which municipalities can increase their own tax levies to make up the difference.

“As a result of law enacted some years ago, the so-called “3050” that sets a four-percent cap on municipal tax levy increases, municipal and school budgets can grow only so much,” Canario said. “In the face of that, it is a nightmare for schools departments to deal with Special Ed. costs from private providers that grow at five or eight or 10 percent each year.”

Canario has been working with members of the Tiverton School Committee and says the answer to this problem is not “short-changing special needs students or trimming back other areas of a school budget to cover higher special education costs. It is finding a way to keep those outside costs from rising so much, so often.”

If enacted, the bill would cap the amount these organizations can raise their prices at the four-percent threshold municipalities are allowed to increase tax levies each year.

“There may be instances when the specific kind of services provided by these agencies represents a significant change in the normal kinds of services, and obviously that would entail a higher fee,” he said. “But all else being equal, if communities have to live with a four-percent increase every year, service agencies should not expect more than a four-percent increase for their services.”

Gist wouldn’t comment on the specifics of Canario’s bill but says it has caught the attention of her department.

“We are reviewing this legislation at this time, and we are not sure if it would be possible to put a rate limit on nonpublic special education programs,” she said.

Representatives from both the Groden Center and Bradley Hospital did not respond to multiple requests for comment.


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