Sixteen months after its due date, the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) has finally released the independent study of the special education census funding method in the State school aid formula. The study, completed by the Denver-based consulting firm of Augenblick Palaich and Associates (APA), concludes that, because the State has failed to fully to fund the formula, it is impossible to analyze whether the census method is effective in providing the resources needed to deliver special education to students with disabilities across the state.
The study was mandated by the State Legislature in the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 (SFRA), with a required completion date of June 30, 2010. The NJDOE released the study in response to a pending lawsuit filed by the New Jersey Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN). ELC serves as counsel to SPAN in the litigation.
In the study, APA documents significant obstacles that prevented a reliable assessment of the effectiveness of the SFRA’s census based method in providing sufficient funding for special education to New Jersey school districts.
The most substantial problem cited by APA is the State’s failure to fully fund the SFRA formula. Specifically, APA researchers were hampered because the census method has not been fully funded, noting that the State’s “implementation of the new special education funding system was derailed after only one year” and that “the new system has never been fully implemented for all districts.”
The lack of special education funding resulted from Governor Chris Christie’s overall cut of $1.6 billion in SFRA formula aid in 2010.
APA cites problems with the collection of relevant data by NJDOE, including expenditure data described as “incomplete and unreliable.” In addition, APA encountered considerable resistance from NJ school districts, reporting that only one-third of districts contacted participated in study interviews. APA notes that some districts cited “consistent budget cuts” as creating “animosity about participating in state run studies.”
Despite these hurdles, APA found “clear differences in the percentages and types of students served in different districts across the state.” APA also found that certain special education classifications tend to have higher costs and that the distribution of students by special education classification is not uniform across all school districts.
APA’s interviews with district personnel highlight the bind in which many districts have been placed – required to provide legally-mandated special education services, but forced to use local funds to make up for state funding cuts. District representatives reported to APA their belief that the change to census funding has not impacted how districts identify special education students or the type of services they provide, but they also described large decreases in state funding that must be made up locally, frequently at the expense of general education programs.
“This report confirms the obvious. By not funding the formula for all school districts, we cannot know whether the census funding method in the formula is working for students with disabilities,” said Elizabeth Athos, ELC Senior Attorney and counsel in the SPAN lawsuit
In the report, APA offers two tentative conclusions: the State “might need to consider funding special education based on the actual enrollment of special education students in districts” and “might need to consider some differentiation of funding for higher cost students before the extraordinary aid threshold is reached.” However, APA urges that, before making any changes to the formula, the census method should be fully funded and implemented, and the NJDOE must improve data collection to facilitate a future analysis of special education enrollment patterns and costs across district sizes and types.
“The State needs to fund the current formula as intended without further delay, and the NJDOE needs to collect accurate data so we can conduct a proper analysis of the formula in the future,” Athos said. “Fair funding for schools is a basic precondition for improving student achievement, especially for our students with disabilities.”
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