NEWPORT CITY – A recent report to the legislature recommends hiring highly trained staff to teach students with special education needs, but school officials in the North Country Supervisory Union (NCSU) say that cost containment pressures under Act 46 are having the opposite effect.
The report, which looked at Vermont’s education spending in the 2014-2015 school year, found that the state is spending $140 million more on special education than it should be, said Rep. Scott Beck of St. Johnsbury during a legislative forum at North Country Career Center Monday night.
Overall, it found that Vermont is spending about 10 percent more on education in general than need be, Beck said.
The report identified three drivers: over-identification of students requiring special education assistance, a lack of early intervention and properly trained staff, and too low student to teacher ratios.
The report recommended unifying school districts to achieve more with less money.
Steve Mason, who serves on the Lowell school board, asked what the legislature was doing to fix the problems with special education.
The House Education Committee is looking at a proposed expenditure of $250,000 for a pilot study of ten schools attempting to cut special education costs, Beck said. The committee is also looking at alternative ways to fund special education, like a block grant model that has been proposed, he said.
There is not currently a uniform model for testing to determine if students require special education, said Sen. Bobby Starr of Troy.
Aides are often used to work with students who require the most help, he said, adding that the state can do better by its special needs children by hiring specialized staff to help.
That’s interesting, said Kristy Ellis, principal of the Jay-Westfield Elementary School, because her school board had to reduce staff to cut expenses to meet spending caps under Act 46 and had to let go the school’s most trained reading recovery person.
“We look at things on the state level,” Beck said.
“That’s the problem,” Ellis murmured under her breath.
Beck said in Vermont there are 3 to 4 more paraeducators than special educators, when the national average is one to one.
“I’m talking about trained, professional teachers,” Ellis said.
A report published in March 2015 by the University of Massachusetts, commissioned by the Vermont Agency of Education and the Vermont Legislative Joint Fiscal Office, indicated that paraprofessionals are performing work outside their level of training, including direct instruction to special needs students, and that student performance is negatively affected in at least two content areas, reading and math, based on higher density of paraeducators in schools.
“It appears that the students with the most complex needs are being served by the least qualified adults,” the report’s authors wrote.
The report also noted that the reason for schools hiring paraeducators over special educators was most frequently the fact that paraeducators cost less money.
Logic would dictate that schools need to hire more special educators, said Peter Moskovites of Charleston, who serves on the North Country Union High School board.
But that would appear to be in contradiction to the original purpose of Act 46, he said.
Cost containment still needs to be addressed, Beck said. It is the belief of the powers that be at the Agency of Education that if money was saved on special education, school boards would just spend it elsewhere.
That assumes an underlying assumption that school boards spend too much on education, Moskovites said.
The state does need to respond to the needs of taxpayers, said Sen. John Rodgers of Glover.
Local boards have to answer to taxpayers, too, Moskovites said. The state constantly focuses on expenses while failing to examine the revenue side of budgets, he said. How about a state resolution that questions how money is spent nationally, such as the budgets for defense and national security, he said.
The fact is that despite a 20 percent reduction in the number of students in Vermont, the number of special education students has not changed, Starr said. The state needs to figure out a way to help those kids get ahead “or we’re going to be feeding them their entire lives,” he said.
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