N.J. school districts avoid cuts in special education in budget crisis
In as dismal a budget year as anyone can remember, with rising costs and steep cuts in state aid, school districts across New Jersey have looked for savings wherever they can find them.
School boards have laid off teachers, scrapped sports, pruned full-day kindergarten to a half day and eliminated free busing for some students.
But one area that cannot be cut, one line item not up for discussion, is special education, a required offering that grows more expensive by the year, far outpacing state and federal aid. At a time of austerity, school officials say, the growing demands of special education are forcing them to slice into general education programs that serve many more students.
“This is an area that is completely out of control and in desperate need of reform,” said Larrie Reynolds, superintendent in the Mount Olive School District, where special education spending rose 17 percent this year. “Everything else has a finite limit. Special education — in this state, at least — is similar to the universe. It has no end. It is the untold story of what every school district is dealing with.”
Eighteen percent of New Jersey’s schoolchildren were in special education programs during the year that just ended, up from 16 percent in 2002 and 13 percent in 1985. They include students with speech difficulties, behavioral problems and physical or mental impairments from mild to severe.
To deal with the range of issues, districts generally provide behaviorists, psychologists and so-called shadows, aides who remain with students for some or all of the day.
Educating those students is inherently more expensive. On average, districts spend about twice the amount to educate a special-needs child as they do for a student in the general population, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association.