UVM study: Vermont spends twice national average per special ed student

Michael Bielawski/TNR

TOO MUCH FOR SPECIAL ED: Professor Tammy Kolbe of the University of Vermont speaks to a joint meeting of the House and Senate Education committees regarding special education funding in the state.

MONTPELIER, Vt. — A UVM study presented to lawmakers Wednesday showed that Vermont’s special education costs are disproportionately high relative to other states.

The central point of the study presented by professor Tammy Kolbe of the University of Vermont, was that Vermont spends roughly twice what other states pay per special education student. Kolbe, one of two authors of the report, said steps could be taken to improve the situation.

The researchers used a national database and determined a set of weights for comparison — essentially, the national average states pay to educate different types of special ed students. For instance, a student with autism should cost about 2.9 times more to educate than a non-special ed student. Likewise, a student with learning disabilities should cost about 1.9 times more relative to non-special ed students.

“We took those weights and we extrapolated based on the existing percentage of students with disabilities to create an average cost based on these weights,” Kolbe said. “Based on that, the predicted amount that we should be spending is about $11,033.”

The amount that Vermont is spending is $21,840, and that’s the amount above the baseline, which is about $15,000 per student.

The national average for special education spending per student is $10,138. New Hampshire pays $11,994 and Massachusetts pays $15,105. No other state comes close to Vermont’s spending amount.

Kolbe offered three observations for how spending got out of control.

“The first thing is that the administrative requirements in rules that define allowable costs for the state’s existing special education funding formula created inefficiencies,” she said.

In other words, when each special education dollar received from the state is highly restricted in where it can be spent, there’s not a lot of wiggle-room to be creative or adaptive.

“The second thing that we heard is that the nature of special ed student needs is growing more complex, and I expect that’s no new news to anyone at this committee,” she said.

There’s also a rising number of students qualifying for special needs help. For example, since 2013 there has been a 75 percent increase in the number of students qualifying for Vermont’s “Extraordinary Cost Reimbursement” program — students that cost $50,000 or more to teach per year.

A third concern, Kolbe said, is the current system incentivizes the classification of special education students. She was hesitant to criticize the development as she emphasized that this could just be a result of educators simply trying to address various needs.

“They see struggling students and they feel that it’s the only way that they can access supports for those students, so it is done in a very well-meaning way, so I want to be careful about that,” she said.

Addressing the first concern, she suggested that Vermont adopt some sort of block grant model — which she called it the “census-based funding mechanism” — where the money awarded to a school has few strings attached so schools can be flexible. Still, there should still be some level of accountability, she said.

“That’s the New Jersey model, which says ‘we’re going to give you X amount of dollars per pupil, but you need to demonstrate that at least 30 percent of those dollars are being spent on students with IEPs [individualized education programs],” she said.

“Now you could set that anywhere; that’s just what New Jersey decided.”

Another aspect of this plan is the way the awarded amount is calculated. In this system, the amount awarded is based on the total number of students in a school, rather than awarding the grants based on kids registered with IEPs. The aim is to discourage any trend of IEPs being assigned to obtain more state money.

Members of the committees questioned if this is the right solution for Vermont.

“If 70 percent can be used on other things, it seems like you have to assume that you are incentivizing a certain amount of that behavior,” said Sen. Philip Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, chair of the Senate Education Committee. “Now if some of this money is not used for special ed, then it can be used for a host of other things. So people begin to say things like, ‘We’ll really need that new roof … it would be great if we get by with this amount of money.’”

Other committee members had questions for Kolbe.

“The thing that bothers me is, I don’t hear anything about how we determine if our special ed children who are on IEPs now are, under this new plan, achieving their goals.” Sen. Carolyn Whitney Branagan, R-Franklin, said.

Kolbe answered that in this case nothing would change. The current systems in place for judging progress would continue to be the same.

Despite warning that money is not being used most efficiently, Kolbe said she does not want it to be taken as a call for austerity.

“This notion of spending too much is a slippery slope,” she said. “We spend a lot, comparatively speaking, to all the benchmarks that we could create. But those numbers are buying services for our students, and these are some of our most at-risk students.”

Michael Bielawski is a reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at bielawski82@yahoo.com and follow him on Twitter @TrueNorthMikeB.

Image courtesy of Michael Bielawski/TNR

13 thoughts on “UVM study: Vermont spends twice national average per special ed student

  1. Home school your kids and prevent them from being indoctrinated with the progressive slop passed off as ‘education’.
    Instead teach them age appropriate math, economics, English, grammar, ethics,history both American and World and Western Civ. Interactive social skills need to be taught also; how to offend fems in pink pussy hats, melt obnoxious snowflakes and most of all “Never start a fight; never lose a fight follows that. That works very well on bullies. Thrash one harshly once and they’ll leave you alone.

    MAGA! Progressive Vermont delenda est.

  2. I have said this before, and will say it again – I wish that at least some of the folks on the Education Committees would spend at least a day in some of the classrooms of their local schools. Some of the School Bd. members in my town do. Believe me, it is the only way they can really understand what is happening in our schools. Some schools are better than others, but that needs to be known as well. I won’t even address the Agency of Education, which is another subject.

  3. A short anecdote
    I was talking to a 50 year old teacher.
    She mentioned she teaches special ed.
    She mentioned she had only one student, because the student needed the 1 on 1 setting.
    I was shocked to hear this.
    I had no idea such a 1 on 1 setting existed.
    No wonder Vermont has such a low student teacher ratio
    No wonder Vermont, a poor state, has such a high cost per student per year.
    The cost of this whole system, with its smorgasbord of options, has become complete out of control.

    Vermont desperately needs more private schools that are not subject to state control or union control
    Vermont needs a voucher system which gives $10,000 per student per year to parents and then parents decide on which private school they want their children to go. The parents pay the difference, if the school charges more.

    • “A third concern, Kolbe said, is the current system incentivizes the classification of special education students. ”

      It surely does. When a student falls behind grade level, do you think educators will admit the student has been neglected or poorly taught? Or will they claim the student has a learning disability? When schools are reimbursed for more than half of all Special Education costs, will they emphasize Regular Education programs that aren’t reimbursed?

      For the 1st $50K of a student’s SPED expenses the State picks up 60% of the cost with a Mainstream Block Grant. The district pays the remaining 40%. For example, if a student’s SPED costs are $40K for the year, the State will pay $24K, the district pays $16K. The only Catch 22 is that the State portion (the reimbursement) typically isn’t realized until the year after the costs are incurred, so the district has to cover those costs temporarily. None the less, those SPED costs are included, in total, in a school’s budget.

      Any SPED costs over $50K are considered ‘Extraordinary’ and are reimbursed at 90%.
      In other words, if a student’s SPED costs are $100K for the year, the State pays 60% of the first $50K ($30K) and 90% of the second $50K ($45K) for a total State reimbursement of $75K, with the district paying a total of $25K ($20K plus $5K).

      SPED funding is a bit more complicated than this synopsis. But this is the gist of it. To read more, see:
      Summary of the Special Education Funding Formula in effect for FY-2018:
      http://education.vermont.go

      But you get the idea.

      • One of your points Jay REALLY bothers me, and that is that students are almost never “held back”, (allegedly) “because it would look bad for the school”!!! OMG! First of all, it is not fair to the student, as he/she will suffer the consequences throughout their entire schooling. Some kids just aren’t ready at age 6 or 7. I often ref. to “little Johnnie”(not his name), who just didn’t want to be there, and enjoyed be in “time out”, and that’s how he spent First grade. Well___guess what___he was advanced to 2nd grade, and yes-he wasn’t ready for that grade!! I lost track of him, but I often think about “little Johnnie”, and wonder how he is doing.

        • Gail: Some of my employees have been through the SPED circumstance and, because my wife and I are former school board members, they asked for our commentary. Often, what we often found is that many of these kids thrive as soon as they can get out of their respective SPED programs.

          Keep in mind the stigma that begins with the characterization of being ‘disabled’ in the first place. Lowered expectations, prescribed drugs in some cases, deferred personal accountibility, disregard for parental opinion because parents aren’t trained professionals, and so forth.

          OK. Dare I call it what it often (not always) is – – – ‘child abuse’.

      • Determining who has a disability is a lot like the fox guarding the hen house…those doing the determinations provide job security for their own department by never improving anyone to the point of not meeting the criteria.

      • Yes.The data shows that not only is it possible, the LD student, in many cases, exceeds the potential of a so-called average (not LD) student. But that’s not the point.

        Willem Post is correct when he says accessibility to independent schools needs to be allowed for all students. When parents choose the school that best meets the needs of their children (public or independent), the number of coded students (and SPED costs) decreases significantly.

        But as long as schools can use alleged disabilities to cover for their failure to teach children and they make money in the process, expect to see more growth in the industrial-dysfunction complex.

    • Yes- William-the one-on-one seems to have more and more common, in my limited observation. There are various reasons for that, and one is that some “dysfunctional”, but smart, students know how to “work the system”, so as to become one-on-one. I have been witness to that. There are lot of factors involved with the special Ed situation. Unfortunately, another factor involves the home situation of some students. That is a very complex situation for the schools/educators to address. I could go on and on, but will stop at this.

    • Not just one-on-one…how about three-on-one? I was talking to a 55-year-old private duty nurse last week. She goes to school with her charge, a teenager with paraplegia, and sits through all his classes, suctioning his windpipe every half hour. Meanwhile, an aide sits next to the wheelchair and desk, taking notes, helping take tests, etc. There’s also an occupational therapist who works with the student part-time. All three are paid by the school.

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