Comerford files bill to study ‘real-life costs’ of special ed

  • State Sen. Jo Comerford. FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 11/4/2019 10:48:44 AM

BOSTON — Sitting in her office on Beacon Hill last Tuesday, state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, announced her latest legislative effort, “An Act quantifying the SPED Gap by comparing actual special-education costs to current special-education assistance.”

“I just pushed send,” Comerford said, streaming a video of the announcement live on her official Facebook page.

The bill calls for a study by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education of the real-life costs of special education.

Right now, the state does not fully fund special education in all school districts. The state assumes that 15 percent of a school district’s students are special-education students and that each of those students take about one-fourth of a teacher’s time. State money is allocated to school districts according to this assumption.

But in some school districts, more than 15 percent of the students are special-education students — and Comerford said she has heard anecdotally that they take up far more than one-fourth of a teacher’s time in reality. Because of the state mandate to fully fund special education, school districts above the 15 percent threshold have to pay to close the “SPED Gap,” as Comerford is calling it.

The Student Opportunity Act, which passed unanimously in the state Senate on Oct. 3, raises the 15 percent assumption to 16 percent, but Comerford said that is not enough.

“Right now, 20 of the 24 Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester cities and towns will have special-education thresholds that are way higher than even the new threshold in the (Student Opportunity Act) that we voted on and I hope the governor signs,” Comerford said.

“What this means is that these towns are of course going to pay for special-education services for their students, but they won’t get reimbursed by the state as they should,” she added. “This is a burden they will bear financially to do what’s right.”

Orange is a notable example of the “SPED Gap” within Comerford’s legislative district. Last year, special-education students made up around 26 percent of total enrollment in the town’s elementary schools, creating a gap of around $3.5 million that the town legally must pay. Orange’s total operating budget is just over $21 million.

It’s not all bad news, though, and Comerford said the Student Opportunity Act as a whole is a “once-in-a-lifetime” bill, providing greater funding for rural schools and schools in low-income communities.

For special education, however, Comerford said the Student Opportunity Act goes only “part of the distance,” and that her bill is necessary to fix that.

“We want special-education services in all schools to be robust, and not every city and town can afford that,” Comerford said, calling special education a “personal, political and social justice issue.”

Per Massachusetts law, the next steps for “An Act quantifying the SPED Gap by comparing actual special-education costs to current special education assistance” will be for the bill to be sent to a Joint Committee for review and hearings, after which it will be reported either unfavorably or favorably, which would allow it to move to the legislative floor for readings and debate.

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