On the docket: Special Education funding, services under scrutiny

Representative Kate Webb

In 2016, the consulting team of Odden and Picus presented a report to the Legislature, noting that Vermont spends approximately 10 percent more than required on education. It attributed the lion’s share of this to spending for special education followed by staff ratios and costs of administration. This report made a variety of recommendations, some of which helped drive Vermont to merge small schools into larger, better-resourced supervisory districts like our own. It also suggested that the way Vermont allocates special education dollars might not only be more costly, it may well be interfering with the ability to better serve struggling learners.

As a follow up, the Legislature commissioned two reports. The first asked for a roadmap for the state as a whole to more effectively and efficiently serve students who struggle. The second asked whether a change in funding formula might better serve students and ultimately save money. In January, the Legislature received these reports.

It is not surprising to hear investigators commend Vermont on the strong dedication of teachers and school leaders willing to go “above and beyond” standard job descriptions, working late hours to support students. Vermont’s Multi-Tiered System of Support and Educational Support Teams provide a model to address the wide variety of learning needs in our students.

At the same time, classroom teachers report feeling unprepared to address the increasing needs of children with significant social and emotional challenges, some of which can be traced to living with trauma. While best-practice models indicate struggling learners need extra time with the most qualified teachers, many students are pulled from class and served by paraeducators asked to deliver services beyond their level of training. The reports provide an array of recommendations.

One of the confounding variables in implementing these recommendations appears to lie in the way we allocate state special education funds to districts. Our current reimbursement model requires special educators and administrators to submit a number of time-consuming, mind-numbing reports accounting sometimes to the minute how special education dollars are spent. Evidence before the Legislature indicates a switch to a census-based model, would provide greater flexibility at the local level, reduce paperwork, and create opportunities for expert staff to deliver services to students before they fall behind. Over time, it appears this model would not only better align with best practices it could ultimately reduce costs.

The House Education Committee on which I serve is currently hearing from stakeholders and we anticipate moving a bill out of committee before Town Meeting Day. There are many moving parts in this process and it is very important that we move forward thoughtfully. This is a significant change that will take several years to implement well. To that end, I am in regular communication with our Champlain Valley School District leaders.

Either Rep. Jessica Brumsted or I will be at Bruegger’s in Shelburne, Tuesday mornings 7:30-8:15. I also do my best to meet with constituents on Mondays by appointment. kwebb@leg.state.vt.us.

Democrat Kate Webb represents Shelburne in the Vermont House of Representatives.

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