Friday, July 07, 2006

Bay State Should Fund Special Ed First (Case Study: Swampscott)

The Swampscott Reporter has a pretty good editorial that I missed from a few weeks back. Click here to read the whole story, but the general gist is thus:

Special education costs every town and city huge amounts of money, to the degree that local towns and cities really can't be counted on being able to afford *and* being able to fund a quality school for everyone else. The way the system is set up now, everyone loses.

For the second year in a row, Swampscott's partner in crime rival neighbor, Marblehead, has recieved significantly more money from the state per pupil, despite the fact that Marblehead is probably a wealthier (and slightly larger) town. I even wrote a letter to the editor to the Reporter about this last year, criticizing Representative Doug Petersen, who I've always deeply admired.

Swampscott, on the other hand, is a relatively small town (14,500 people) that - despite being a wealthy town - struggles to pay for its school system. There's little to no commercial base, no major mall and about 5,000 fewer citizens than towns like Marblehead. Our town has a large base of seniors and people nearing that age. The phenominon is common, affecting other nearby towns like Lynnfield, but unlike many of those towns Swampscott students have sufferred some major cuts because of failed Prop 2 1/2 innitiatives.

Part of the problem arises because Swampscott has four elementary schools when a lot of towns its size would only have two, but statistics show that smaller elementary schools perform better. Swampscott's smallest elementary school (and the one I went to), Machon, finished in the top 10 of MCAS scores for the entire state. It routinely performs as well better than the Swampscott's school that serves the most prosperous neighborhoods (those Stanley School Snobs). But, the town's "master plan" is to shut it down (never mind the fact that Machon also serves the poorest students in Swamspcott too, the only true middle and working class neighborhood in the town). Why? To save money. But at what cost?

Ultimately, towns and cities would be better served by serving those who need it most, first: students with special needs. The state should pay every single necessary special education dollar before it doles out any other educational funds. Then give it to the districts that need it most.

Serious education reform is needed in this state - not necessarily to improve the educational system, because we have the best one in the country. However, we need to streamline it. The biggest problem that exists now is inequity, because of stupid formulas and the state's reliance on property taxes to fund school systems. If we could arrange a better way to fund schools in this state, truly no one would be left behind.

However, I don't know if this state has the sort of courageous leaders to enact that necessary change. The only person I've seen so far even talking about it is Deval Patrick (and all his local aid reform/property tax relief talk) - but he hasn't won the election yet.

PS: In case the link goes poof, as has been known to happen on the Swampscott Reporter Online, here's some pertinent quotes:

OK, we've been here before. Marblehead gets hundreds of dollars per pupil more from the commonwealth of Massachusetts than Swampscott does.
Why? Because politicians created a "formula" for distributing what they call "local aid" from the state to the cities and towns decades ago. It includes many factors, including income, the value of taxable property, local "effort" and a host of other factors, including how many kids in your local schools qualify for and get reduced price lunches.
It doesn't matter why Swampscott gets less in this matrix of numbers. What matters is that it hurts people, real people, the kids who are supposed to benefit.
That's why selectmen and the town administrator, together, hit the nail on the head Monday night after everyone had gone home and everybody turned off the television: Legislators should fix this and not just for Swampscott's benefit but for all
the right reasons.
Legislators are too timid to mess with the formula, despite more obvious inequities each year, because some of them represent communities that will lose money. That's the real world.
But, our selectmen said, the right thing to do is to fund special education, in rich towns and poor cities, right off the top of the pile of money the state plans to dole out each year. In other words, make sure the kids who need the money most, get the money first.
Seems pretty simple to us.
What happens now is that the state looks at the socio-economic numbers - it thinks everyone in Swampscott is rich - and determines that towns like ours, Lynnfield and a bunch of others really don't need the money, so they send less.
That leaves the towns in the lurch, struggling to be sure special education is funded properly, at the least amount possible, but also taking available budget money away from the other kids.
In other words, every kid gets a little less than he or she deserves and kids from not-so-rich families who need special education get short shrift. Real world stuff
Not fair. The selectmen's idea is a good one and should be considered by legislators with guts. Who knows, Swampscott might even do worse financially; nobody ran the numbers Monday night.
But fair is fair. And legislators should like that.

No comments:

About Ryan's Take