Comerford to file bill for special ed. study, awareness

  • State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/21/2019 1:49:25 PM

In the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester District of the state Senate, 20 out of 24 municipalities get less than they need from the state to fully fund special education. 

Now, the legislator representing that area, state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, said she has already finished a bill and plans to file it imminently, that would require a state study of special education in each school district. 

The goal is to make the state realize just how underfunded special education is, she said.

“We should serve all children, and state should have the back of the municipalities,” Comerford said. 

In Massachusetts, the state’s education funding formula uses an assumed percentage to calculate how much a school district gets from the state for special education — state law says 15% of students are special education students, and they typically need about a quarter of a teacher’s time to be educated. 

However, it is also mandated that special education is fully funded. So, when a school district has a higher percentage of special education students than the state assumes, it creates a gap in funding the municipality has to pay for. In towns like Orange, where special education students made up around 26% of total enrollment last year, this gap is more than $3 million.

According to Comerford, special education should be fully funded by the state, and that is the reason she is filing legislation to have the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) shine a light on the funding problem. 

“We need a formal study by DESE to raise public awareness for (special education) thresholds that are much higher,” she said. “We need painstaking due diligence on the part of DESE to find out what it really takes to serve special education students.”

Despite the current situation, there are some reasons for optimism when it comes to state funding for special education, Comerford said. The Student Opportunity Act, Senate No. 2350, passed unanimously in the state Senate on Oct. 3.

The act adds an additional $1.5 billion to public education over the next seven years, with money specifically targeting the higher costs of education for rural students, impoverished students, students in schools with declining enrollment and special education students. It also bumps the state’s 15% assumption up to 16%.

“I feel, overall, very positive about the bill, especially for this reason,” Comerford said. “This bill will help our communities, we just still need to go that extra step.”

Indeed, while it will provide some additional funds for special education, the Student Opportunity Act still falls short of actually polling school districts to see how many special education students they have. 

Comerford’s bill, which could be filed next week, would mandate a public hearing on the matter, and she expects plenty of western Massachusetts educators would show up — 20 out of 24 of the municipalities in her district have special education rates that exceed the state’s assumption. 

In fact, Comerford said western Massachusetts educators and officials largely drove the Student Opportunity Act’s small successes in increasing funding for special education. People like Kathy Reinig, of the Orange Finance Committee, spent countless hours making calls, sending emails and driving to Boston to lobby for greater state special education funding, Comerford said. 

“It is true that our district was able to weigh in powerfully and will continue to weigh in powerfully,” Comerford said. “I can’t look away from that alarm Kathy (Reinig) sounded. If I’m to serve Orange, I’m to making fully funding special education and regional transportation a priority.”

Comerford said the state has a responsibility to educate all students fully, and therefore to revisit special education funding. She hopes her legislation will start a process leading toward complete state funding for special education students. 

While it’s a victory, bumping the state’s 15% assumed percentage to 16% under the Student Opportunity Act is not enough, Comerford said. In many cases, that 16% looks more like 4%, Comerford said, because when the state is calculating how much to give districts, it also assumes a teacher spends about a fourth of their time with a special education student. 

It might be anecdotal, but Comerford said she knows from teachers, administrators and superintendents that many teachers often spend much more than a fourth of their time educating a special education student. A DESE study would help find the real-life data for special education, rather than continuing to rely on state assumptions. 

“The bill will seek an in-depth survey,” Comerford said. “I think we have a moral obligation to go back at this.”

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