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Disability Education Pushed by Feds, Paid for by Locals

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According to a state report issued this week, twelve percent of the students in New York's public schools are enrolled in special education programs. Children living with disabilities are expensive to educate. Their services often cost twice or even three times as much as a child in general education programs. Advocates here in the North Country say the pay-offs are worth it. Many children who might have been unproductive and unemployed are now learning important life and job skills. Some are able to go on to college. But even supporters of disability education programs agree that Federal support for local school districts is lagging behind. A new set of Federal mandates is set to go into effect this year. As Brian Mann reports, local taxpayers are likely to pick up the tab.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief
BRIAN MANN: The Individuals with Disability Education Act was one of the land mark pieces of civil rights legislation passed in the 1970's opening up new worlds to millions of kids and families who needed access to public schools and special help. But New York Senator, Chuck Schumer, a Democrat says in one important way the program was a bait and switch.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: When the federal government put in standards for Special Education they said we, Washington would pay forty percent of the cost. And the localities liked it. They said hey, we're paying for this ourselves, you pay us forty percent, we'll follow your standards. Over the years it has so devolved that we only pay seventeen percent.

BRIAN MANN: That's seventeen percent of a program that continues to grow more expensive. In 2001, special education programs cost a little over fifteen thousand dollars per student statewide. By 2003, that number had risen to nearly eighteen thousand. Schumer says the lack of federal support is straining local tax payers.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: Our property tax is through the roof. Through the roof already. If we were to simply live up to the forty percent, your school taxes wouldn't have to go up for five or ten years.

BRIAN MANN: Once state aid kicks in many districts receive special education funding that tops thirty percent. Some poorer districts receive even more money. As much as seventy-five percent. But Ernie Stratton, Superintendent of the Lake Placid Central School District, says the lack of federal aid prevents some districts from adding enrichment programs that benefit general education students.

ERNIE STRATTON: What they find themselves having to do is cut back on programs that can benefit the entire population of students because they need that money to off-set what the cost for educating students that have these specialized programs.

BRIAN MANN: That kind of unpopular trade off, along with the growing controversy of rising property taxes puts additional pressure on special needs kids and their families.

JEN FITZGERALD: There is a lot of resentment.

BRIAN MANN: Jen Fitzgerald lives in Saranac Lake and heads a statewide disability support program called Parent to Parent.

JEN FITZGERALD: If someone told you today you were going to have a child with a disability, think about the emotions that would go through your mind because of societies view of a child with a disability, because you'd know you're gonna be the one taking the flack for costing that school budget to go up.  

BRIAN MANN: Statewide the average special education student costs just under eighteen thousand dollars a year. General education students cost roughly seventy-five hundred. Critics say the higher costs reflects expanding definitions of what disability means. Also, new requirements for special services. But Nancy Moore, an attorney with the Disabilities Law Clinic at Albany Law School, says the goal is simply to get all kids educated.

NANCY MOORE: That is a constant budgetary struggle that doesn't alleviate the school district of their obligations to provide a free and appropriate public education to all of its school aged children.

BRIAN MANN: Despite the lack of federal funding, Moore says most school districts do follow the IDEA guidelines. Advocates also say that special education programs are getting better, helping more kids to graduate with high school diplomas and real skills. This year a new set of regulations will go into effect requiring districts to improve their reading programs for special need kids and also bringing IDEA in line with No Child Left Behind. In theory Moore says these new mandates come with new money.

NANCY MOORE: These new IDEA does provide for an increase of about 2.3 billion dollars each year with the idea that full funding is somehow going to be achieved by the year 2011.

BRIAN MANN: But everyone interviewed for this story agreed that federal funding is unlikely to keep pace with the expanding requirements.

NANCY MOORE: Whether this is realistic or it's just good sounding rederick, I really don't know. It's hard to envision congress actually appropriating these funds and then actually making it to the local school districts.

BRIAN MANN: For North Country Public Radio, I'm Brian Mann.

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